Speaker: No pork in 2021 budget

©PhilSTAR Daily, Inc

Senate eyes ratification by 2nd week of December

MANILA, Philippines — The P4.5-trillion national budget passed by the House of Representatives Friday night is free of “pork,” Speaker Lord Allan Velasco said.

“We make sure that this is a constitutional budget based on the decision of the Supreme Court. We are all lawyers here and we are making sure that there is no ‘pork’ in the said budget,” Velasco told reporters shortly after the approval on third and final reading of the record-high budget.

Malacañang said it’s now the turn of senators to work for the timely approval of the national outlay, the ratification of which the Senate leadership hopes to see by the second week of December – if it receives the approved version from the House before the end of the month.

The SC ruling specifically declared as unconstitutional the previous practice where lawmakers “intervene, assume or participate in any of the various post-enactment stages of the budget execution, such as but not limited to the areas of project identification, modification and revision of project identification, fund release and/or fund realignment unrelated to the power of congressional oversight.”

The Speaker vowed that there would be no insertions by congressmen during the period of amendments as the House now followed the institutional amendments practiced by the Senate where changes in the GAB are initiated by concerned agencies.

“I commend you, my fellow representatives, that despite the differences in viewpoints we have proven to the Filipino people that we can actually work together and get things done,” Velasco said in a speech.

“The expenditure program is no ordinary one. It is an extraordinary budget for extraordinary times,” he said.

In passing House Bill No. 7727 or the 2021 GAB via a 267-6 vote, the chamber approved the creation of a special committee to consolidate all amendments to the measure to be submitted by agencies next week prior to printing and submission to the Senate on Oct.28.

The STAR learned that the House leadership designated 14 ranking congressmen as members of the small committee.

Majority Leader Martin Romualdez, Senior Deputy Speaker Doy Leachon and appropriation committee chairman Eric Yap will lead the panel with Reps. Joey Salceda, Stella Quimbo, Sharon Garin, Edgar Sarmiento, Jack Duavit, Joet Garcia, XJ Romualdo, Bernadette Herrera, Banti Cuaresma, Eileen Ermita Buhain and Edcel Lagman as members.

Major political parties and blocs in the House – the ruling PDP-Laban, National Unity Party, National People’s Coalition, Lakas-CMD, Liberal Party, Party-List Coalition and the minority – are represented among members of the committee.

Velasco revealed that the committee would look into proposals to increase the budget of agencies playing crucial roles in the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, particularly the Department of Health and the Department of Education.

“Actually, there are a lot of agencies asking for additional budget. We will look into it definitely, specifically the budget for purchase of vaccine. We will try to look for other funds that we can put to health,” he said.

Bigger budget for ICT

The Speaker said there was also a proposal to increase the budget for information and communications technology.

“ICT is crucial for our students at this time and there is really a need to improve our broadband network because as you know, our connectivity is weak. So we will definitely look into that,” he pointed out.

Velasco added that the Armed Forces might also get additional funding for acquisition of helicopters and C-130 aircraft, which he said are “needed in this time of COVID-19 for timely delivery of goods in provinces.”

He also said the committee would also look into the reported “unequal distribution” of infrastructure projects among districts – a concern raised by his ally Negros Oriental Rep. Arnie Teves during budget hearing.

“I’m still looking at it, I haven’t reviewed it yet. During the small committee next week hopefully, we’ll see it already. But for me, if it’s there already, there should be no movement unless it is not necessary and we need the funds for more urgent response for COVID-19,” he explained.

“As much as possible, we want to do everything we can to fairly distribute the projects among the districts,” Velasco added.

The Speaker also denied the allegation of ousted deputy speaker and Camarines Sur Rep. LRay Villafuerte that former congressman Rolando Andaya had an active role in the budget deliberations under the new leadership.

“I haven’t seen congressman Andaya actively participating behind the scenes,” he stressed, dismissing the insinuation of Villafuerte.

“I can still understand why Congressman LRay doesn’t want to stop ever since the start of the (speakership) fight and up to now he still won’t stop talking. I just don’t try to listen to that anymore. What’s important is we are united here in Congress now,” he commented.

Senate President Vicente Sotto III and Sen. Sonny Angara, chairman of the Senate finance committee, have sought commitment from House leaders to transmit the budget as soon as possible, according to Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri.

“Originally, their (House) request is (to transmit the budget) on Nov. 5 but they will comply (with the request of the Senate for an earlier transmittal). Then we schedule maybe by the end of November there will be a Senate version, then ratification. The longest time is the second week of December for ratification and for the President to sign so that the new budget is available before January,” Zubiri said.

Early resumption

He said the Senate plans to resume session on Nov.9 or a week ahead of the original Nov. 16 schedule.

“Angara will sponsor the NEP (national expenditures program) and then there will be a debate every day to expedite approval,” Zubiri said.

Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon expressed concern the House might still accept insertions even after approval of the budget.

“In our Constitution, after passing the third reading, there should be printing and no amendments. Now it is complicated, approval on third reading on paper because they have small committees made to accept insertions or amendments. That is why it cannot be submitted immediately. I mean, it should be just four days after printing. But they will not end. In fact, I read in the newspaper that they will only give an advance copy on Oct. 29,” Drilon noted.

Sen. Panfilo Lacson said the House leadership should be reminded of a Constitutional provision that says: “Upon the last reading of a bill, no amendment thereto shall be allowed.”

“Amid promises of ‘best efforts’ to transmit the budget bill by end-October, if the House still ends up transmitting the bill on Nov. 5, does it mean that the description ‘House of the People’ is all lip service?”

Meanwhile, Presidential Communication Operations Office (PCOO) chief Martin Andanar and presidential spokesman Harry Roque Jr. praised the House for the approval of the budget measure and expressed confidence the Senate would act swiftly to ensure its ratification before yearend.

“We laud the House of Representatives, under the leadership of House Speaker Lord Allan Jay Velasco, for the approval of the P4.506-trillion 2021 General Appropriations Bill (GAB) on its third and final reading,” Andanar said.

“As the 2021 GAB progresses to the Senate for its deliberation, the House of Representatives’ approval of the bill will go a long way in helping support and realize the Duterte administration’s outlined undertakings, responses and programs for our collective recovery from the adverse impacts of COVID-19,” Andanar said.

“We hope that the Senate’s deliberation on the 2021 GAB will be swift and efficient, in order for us to be on track towards fulfilling our mandate to the Filipinos and our goal of healing, rebounding and recovering as one nation,” he said.

In a statement, Roque said he hopes the House would transmit the budget documents to the Senate as soon as possible “so that the Upper Chamber would be given ample time to act on this legislative measure, which has been certified urgent by the President.”

“The Chief Executive has on many occasions articulated the importance of the timely passage of the budget, given that we are in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic where we need resources to fund government interventions to mitigate the adverse effects of the virus,” Roque added. – Christina Mendez, Cecille Suerte-Felipe