Congress OKs P3.7T national budget

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President Rodrigo Duterte finally received his P3.757 billion proposed 2019 national budget from Congress Friday ending months of intense deliberations marred by allegations of “pork barrel” insertions by both senators and congressmen.

Removed from the General Appropriations Act, however, was the use of the cash-based scheme that would have limited the use of funds within a year.

The bicameral conference committee rejected the Palace-proposed system and instead retained the obligation-based budgeting.

At least two senators, namely, Minority Leader Franklin Drilon and Panfilo Lacson, voted against the budget measure and took their frustrations to the Senate floor.

Drilon said he could not just approve the proposed 2019 General Appropriations Act (GAA) without scrutinizing it thoroughly.

“It is unfortunate that the Senate did not have sufficient time to review the General Appropriations Bill submitted by the House of Representatives and the reconciled version of the conference committee,” Drilon lamented.

“To give my vote to this budget is like signing a blank check. I simply cannot do that,” he said.

Lacson, in explaining his dissenting vote, enumerated the billions of pesos’ worth of “pork barrel” insertions retained in the approved budget measure.

Evil reincarnate

“Today, pork barrel presents itself as an evil reincarnate, taunting and tempting us, hiding in the shroud of feigned public service. Pork proves that the irresistible lure of money moves men and women of power who should be the guardians of the public treasury, to devise cunning machinations to further their own selfish interests,” Lacson said.

For his part, Sen. Joseph Victor Ejercito, vice chair of the Senate Finance committee, said he was happy to have his amendments retained in the approved budget, including the P23 billion for the Department of Health for the implementation of the Universal Health Care measure and fund salaries of health workers.

Ejercito maintained the insertions were institutional amendments allotted to agencies that need funding.

The senators who took part in the bicameral conference committee that approved the budget were Loren Legarda, Ejercito, Cynthia Villar, Nancy Binay, Sonny Angara and Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto. The bicameral was held at the AFP Commissioned Officers Club in Camp Aguinaldo.

Pork retained

Lacson, also vice chair of the Senate Finance committee, did not attend the bicameral conference committee apparently to underscore his frustration for the retention of the P23 billion individual amendments of some senators and P160 million for each of the 297 congressmen.

The minority leader also denied allegation made by House Appropriations committee chair Rep. Rolando Andaya Jr. that senators will get P3 billion in pork allocation, including a province in the Visayas getting more than P3 billion.

He called the allegation “grossly unfair.”

“I deny and take exception to that allegation. I would like to make of record that the province referred to is not my province of Iloilo,” he stressed.

Drilon disclosed all the amendments he made in the budget, urging his colleagues to do the same “for purposes of transparency which we owe to the Filipino people.”

“The unsubstantiated and unfair claims regarding pork barrel allocations make each member of the Senate a suspect,” he said.

”In the spirit of transparency and to erase the cloud of doubt hanging over the Senate, I appeal to the members of this chamber to make a similar disclosure,” he stressed.

Drilon, who has been actively scrutinizing the country’s spending outlay for the past 20 years, said he is not convinced that the 2019 national budget is in sync with what this government wants to accomplish, lamenting lack of congruence.

Andaya victorious

Andaya said cash-based budgeting, which was supposed to reduce the danger of irregularities, has been removed as a concept.

“It is not an expenditure item. This was the budgetary concept dreamt by Secretary Benjamin Diokno. Now, that dream is already gone,” he said.

Moreover, Andaya said some of Speaker Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s additional budget requests such as P20 billion for agriculture, P10 billion for health and P350 million for urban poor housing were considered by the bicameral panel.

“We can’t consider all (her requests), in DAR (Department of Agrarian Reform), we can’t consider all. In (the request for) DA (Department of Agriculture), it was given but not all,” Andaya said, adding Arroyo agreed on the bicameral committee’s approved budget.

In the reconciliation statement of obligations and appropriations report of the bicameral conference, Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) topped the total increase with P47 billion followed by the Health Department with P16 billion increase and Department of National Defense with P3.1 billion.

Fourth on the list was the other Executive offices with P3.07 billion followed by state universities and colleges with P2.8 billion and Labor and Employment Department with P2.65 billion.

Fair notice

Diokno asserted his right under the House of Representatives’ rules through a letter to Speaker Arroyo requesting to reset the hearing called on supposed budget insertions.

Diokno yesterday invoked the right of Department of Budget and Management officials and staff to “proper notice and fair and just hearing” in the letter sent to Arroyo.

He explained the subpoena ordering him to testify before the committee on appropriations was issued last Wednesday and it was only received by his department on Thursday morning.

Citing Section 8 (3) of the House rules on procedure governing inquiries in aid of legislation, Diokno said there was no proper notice and not enough time to allow him and the officials to adequately prepare for the hearing as the rules provided that “subpoena shall be served to a witness at least three days before a scheduled hearing…”

In the same letter, he also requested a list of questions during the congressional inquiry as what he previously asked during a Question Hour.

Last Wednesday, the Andaya-chaired panel issued subpoena duces tecum and subpoena ad testificandum against the Budget chief.

In the copy of subpoenas furnished by the panel yesterday, Diokno was ordered to appear before the House panel today to testify under oath and to bring the records of savings and utilization for Fiscal Years 2017 and 2018.

“Failure to comply with this order is subject to penalty under the law,” both subpoenas read.

The order was signed by Andaya, Speaker Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and attested by acting House Secretary General Dante Roberto Maling.

Records submitted

On the other hand, the Budget department submitted yesterday the copies of records of savings and utilization for fiscal years 2017 and 2018 which were also subpoenaed by the House panel.

Diokno denied having offered members of the House a total of P40 billion to clam up on the alleged P75-billion insertion in the proposed 2019 national budget.

With Hananeel Bordey Joshua Lao, Kristina Maralit

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