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2019 budget in last-minute trouble at bicameral talks

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WEDNESDAY validated expectations of “bloody” bicameral conference committee talks on the proposed P3.757-trillion national budget for this year, with no less than the Senate president threatening to withdraw the version of his chamber from the table before lawmakers concerned met again on the spending plan that day.

Leaders of the Senate and of the House of Representatives delegations to the bicameral conference committee, who agreed on Monday to approve the proposed national budget on Wednesday, were to resume talks late in the afternoon.

Senate President Vicente C. Sotto III proposed earlier in the day to withdraw the Senate version and to allow the government to continue operating on a reenacted budget for this year.

“Considering the numerous allegations being leveled at the 2019 budget both from the HOR (House of Representatives) and the Senate, I will propose to Senator Loren (B. Legarda), as chair of the Finance committee, to withdraw the Senate GAB (General Appropriations Bill) version and go for a re-enacted budget. I hope that will erase all doubts and allegations of ‘pork’ and other so called insertions in the Budget,” he told reporters in a Viber message early afternoon.

House of Representatives Appropriations Committee Chair Rolando G. Andaya, Jr. of Camarines Sur’s 1st district appealed to the Senate to continue with the budget proceedings, saying in a statement: “On the part of the House, our position remains unchanged: We want a new budget. We are against a re-enacted one.”

“Long before senators called for transparency, we have unilaterally announced that we are ready and willing to disclose and justify our amendments to the national budget,” Mr. Andaya said.




“I urge my Senate friends not to abandon the bicameral conference proceedings. I remain hopeful of a positive outcome.”

The National Economic and Development Authority has warned that operating on a re-enacted budget for the entire year could slash 1.1-2.3 percentage point off gross domestic product since doing so would leave new projects unfunded and, hence, unimplemented.

Congress has less than two weeks left to ratify the 2019 national budget before going on its Feb.7-May 19 break.

“Upon consultation with the Senate leadership and with the Executive Department, I will take into consideration the statement of Senate President Sotto as I lead the Senate panel in meeting with our House counterpart later today,” Ms. Legarda said in a statement.

As of the second budget bicameral conference committee meeting last Monday, the Senate had proposed P190 billion worth of amendments while the House of Representatives’ amendments involved P50-60 billion reallocations.

Ms. Legarda has clarified that realignments made by the Senate in the 2019 budget were brought about the government agencies’ requests for additional funding to the Senate committee on finance, insisting they were not “pork” funds for use by senators.

Mr. Andaya told reporters on Tuesday that the Senate amendments were still considered “insertions” in the budget bill.

‘SICK AND TIRED’
In a chat with reporters before the Senate plenary session late Wednesday afternoon, Mr. Sotto said he was “sick and tired” of accusations about Senate “insertions”.

‘Yun na nga sinasabing maraming insertions daw tapos nung sinabi may mga insertion ang House, ang sinabi may insertion ang Senado. Paanong gagawin natin dun? Magkakasundo ba sila? Papayag ba sila na wala ‘yun or papayag ba sila na hindi pala ‘yun totoo? Hindi eh. Nagkakagulo eh. Eh di mag-re-enact tayo, walang problema (When it was mentioned that there were insertions in the House version, they said there were insertions by the Senate. What are we going to do now? Are they going to agree on anything? Are they going to accept that there are no insertions…? No. There is chaos. So, let’s just re-enact the budget, no problem),” Mr. Sotto said.

The Senate leader also said he has been receiving reports that the House leadership has taken a “hardball stance” on the budget.

“I don’t seem to see that magkakaroon na talaga ng (there will really be an) agreement… At talagang mabigat ‘yung alegasyon… (The allegation that the Senate made insertions is really serious); it’s better that we just withdraw,” he added.

Nire-report sa akin, nagkakaroon ng hardball stance ang leadership ng House tungkol sa budget. Pagkatapos hinahanapan pa ng kung anu-ano ang Senado. And then of course sa Senate mismo merong mga sinasabi na mga insertions. Eh ‘di, itaob natin ang mesa, zero-zero. Para wala nang problema (It is being reported to me that the House leadership is taking a hardball stance regarding the budget. And then, the Senate is being asked to explain various things. And then of course there are talks of Senate insertions. So let’s turn the tables, zero-zero, so there will be no problem.) — Camille A. Aguinaldo and Charmaine A. Tadalan