Neri to face Senate inquisitors

PHILIPPINE NEWS SERVICE — Commission on Higher Education chief Romulo Neri has agreed to stop playing hide-and-seek and appear before the Senate to save his agency’s proposed budget for next year.

Neri is in danger of being cited for contempt by the Senate for which he may be arrested for repeatedly ignoring its summons to return to the witness stand to testify on the national broadband contract granted to China’s ZTE Corp.

But Neri, former director general of the National Economic Development Authority, has assured the senators that he will show up at the Senate on Monday after being told by Senator Juan Ponce Enrile, chairman of the finance committee, that he will not face arrest once he sets foot on the chamber.

Enrile said he called up Neri Wednesday to request him to attend the Senate’s plenary deliberations on the agency’s P1.045-billion budget for fiscal year 2008. The chamber earlier shelved the discussion on the CHED’s appropriation upon motion of Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr. due to Neri’s absence. Pimentel was irked upon being told that Neri was on official mission to South Korea on the day the agency’s budget was scheduled to be taken up last week.

“I assured him [Neri] that he will be treated fairly and well. That I guarantee even if I have to go to jail with him in case anyone will press for such course of action,” he told the Kapihan sa Senado.

“I think he will come,” Enrile said when asked if he was able to convince the acting CHED chairman to show up.

Among the agencies in the executive branch, the proposed budget of the CHED is the only one still pending approval by the Senate before it wraps up the floor debates on the P1.227-trillion national budget next year.

Enrile said that as far as he knew, there is no move in the Senate to issue a warrant of arrest against Neri.

“As chairman of the finance committee, I assured him he will not be abused, he will not be insulted. He will not be demeaned.”

Meanwhile, Enrile rejected the appeal of the Freedom from Debt Coalition to respect the decision of the House of Representatives to slash the P295.7-billion fund for debt service by P17.8 billion.

Enrile has recommended that P12.1 billion of the House cut be restored “to provide more legroom for the payment of interest on so-called tainted or fraudulent loans.” This means that only P5.7 billion of the House cut was retained by the Senate.

He said that if the cut in the debt service is not restored, the government runs the risk of defaulting on its loan repayment to creditors. He said this will damage the country’s international credit standing.

Enrile said it was no longer possible to grant the Supreme Court’s request to restore the P3.8-billion cut in the original P14.4-billion budget of the judiciary for next year.

He pointed out that the cut was made by the Development Budget Coordinating Committee and not by the House of Representatives.

Enrile said it is not possible to restore the P3.8-billion cut without increasing the P1.227-trillion budget submitted by Malacanang to Congress, which is not allowed by the Constitution.

“You cannot add anything more to that. You can cut it but you cannot cut or realign. That P3.8 billion is not included in the P1.227 trillion submitted by the President,” Enrile said.