Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Philippine Congress OKs P11.3B for poll project

Leila Salaverria, Lira Dalangin-Fernandez
Philippine Daily Inquirer, INQUIRER.net
http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/inquirerheadlines/nation/view/20090303-191995/House-OKs-P113B-for-poll-project

The House of Representatives Monday night passed on third and final reading the P11.3-billion automation budget of the Commission on Elections for the 2010 polls.

Voting 193-1-1, the House approved House Bill 5715, or “An Act appropriating P11,301,790,000.00 as supplemental appropriations for an automated election system and for other purposes,” during its final session week before its month-long recess.

Nueva Ecija Rep. Edno Joson voted against the measure, while Rizal Rep. Michael John Duavit abstained.

The measure passed without a proposed “companion bill” that was intended to set the conditions for which the funds would be released and guide the Comelec in implementing the poll automation.

Several lawmakers who voted for the bill, nevertheless, expressed reservations about the push for nationwide automation of the counting of votes.

Sorsogon Rep. Salvador Escudero said Filipinos were so resourceful that it was easy to believe they could fool the automated system.

“I vote ‘Yes’ with reservation because of anxiety bordering on fear that this representation doubts there is a machine in the world that can be insulated from the ingenuity of the Filipino,” Escudero said.

But he added that through the collective effort of the citizenry, the voters, the administration and the Comelec, there was still a chance that the country could have clean and honest elections.

Joson, the lone dissenter, said he could not trust the men who run the machines, given the country’s experience in past elections.

"Garbage in, garbage out.…The specter of [a] failure of elections looms in the horizon when there is [a] failure of men," Joson said in explaining his vote.

“We cannot risk the holding of 2010 elections to men and machines we cannot trust... In other words, Mr. Speaker, I would rather trust our teachers to make things right,” he said.

He also said there was hardly any time to automate the 2010 polls, since the process should have begun way back in 2007.

There is still voters’ education, teachers' training and the bidding process that must be completed, he added.

Makati Rep. Teodoro Locsin, chair of the committee on suffrage and electoral reforms, earlier said the House was set to pass on third reading the automation budget, with no conditions for its release.

Also earlier, Deputy Speaker Pablo Garcia’s motion to reconsider the approval of the measure on second reading was reconsidered by the plenary. The Cebu congressman made the reconsideration to amend a section on the use of the automation funds, which removed the conditions supposed to be set by Congress.

Shariff Kabunsuan Rep. Didagen Dilangalen objected to Garcia’s amendment but after a brief meeting among lawmakers Monday afternoon, consensus was reached and the plenary agreed on the amendment.

The section would now read as “the disbursement of the amount herein appropriated or any fund thereof shall be authorized only in strict compliance with provision of said RA. 9369 and other election laws incorporated in said Act so as to ensure the conduct of a free, orderly, clean, honest, and credible election on May 10, 2010.”

Locsin said that instead of the companion bill, the House was looking to pass new legislation amending R.A. 9369, the existing automation law, but did not specify the changes to be made. But he said these amendments would not be a precondition for the budget’s release.

Locsin said he would introduce amendments to the automation law within the week.

“The budget as of now is a separate thing. Now, if we get to pass this by both Houses of Congress by say, April, that would be the governing law,” he said.

Sought for comment on the statements of Commission on Elections Chair Jose Melo that indicated frustration at the House’s seeming reluctance to pass the automation bill, Locsin said he viewed positively the Comelec chair’s firm push for automation.

“It’s good he took a strong stand,” he said.

But Locsin also said that once the budget was passed, there was nothing that would stop Congress from amending the law.

Earlier Monday afternoon, Locsin told reporters that it would be hypocritical of lawmakers to say there was no time for the automation of the 2010 polls because they were the ones who would pass the supplemental budget.

“The Comelec and the advisory council say there’s time. For the congressman to say there’s no time is an utter act of hypocrisy because we’re controlling time,” he said.

Locsin also batted for full automation of the 2010 elections, which he said actually has the support of a lot of lawmakers.

He disagreed with the holding of hybrid polls, in which only the selection of national leaders would be fully automated, because it would give rise to “retail cheating.”

Such a system would allow officials who cheat the chance to make payoffs only at the lower levels, since the results would be transmitted via automation to the higher levels.

Bayan Muna (People First) party-list Rep. Teodoro Casiño voted in favor of the measure but expressed reservations that automation would lead to “systematic cheating.”

“We are afraid that under the hand of an administration that is intent on cheating in 2010, automation could be most [the] dangerous step that we could take,” he said as he explained his vote.

Casiño said he would introduce amendments to the existing law that would allow for the production of a document, such as an election return, with which the automated results be counterchecked.

Bukidnon Rep. Teofisto Guingona III said he favored automation but had "strong reservation and strong hope" the system would take into account not only speed but also transparency.

While voting for the bill, Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman said he wants clarification because RA 9369 also authorizes both manual voting and counting.

Malacañang, in a statement, welcomed the passage of the measure.

“The approval of the poll automation budget on final reading is a victory for Filipino voters, who deserve clean, honest, orderly, and peaceful elections that deliver fast and decisive results,” deputy presidential spokesperson Lorelei Fajardo said in a statement Monday evening.

“This is a legacy [that] the administration is proud to share with all Filipinos,” she said. With a report from Joel Guinto, INQUIRER.net

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