Economic team still preparing projects for Comelec waiver

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Benjamin E. Diokno
Budget Secretary Benjamin E. Diokno

BUDGET Secretary Benjamin E. Diokno said the government is still preparing the list of major projects which it will submit to the Commission on Elections (Comelec) soon for exemption from the election ban on public works, apart from the foreign-backed works which are typically exempt.

“We recognize that there’s a forthcoming election, there will be an election ban. Fortunately, foreign-assisted projects are not covered by the ban,” Mr. Diokno said yesterday.

The poll body prohibits public works as well as the hiring and transfer of government workers between March 29 and May 12, ahead of the midterm elections on May 13.

“There are a lot of foreign-assisted projects. The train from Davao is ongoing,” Mr. Diokno added.

In August, the construction of the first phase of the P85-billion Mindanao Railway Project was reportedly due to start in January, with the preliminary right-of-way acquisition phase due to be completed by the end of 2018.

The railway project, which covers the Tagum-Davao-Digos segment, is projected to start operating by 2021.

“I think what is needed is a detailed list of projects, not blanket authority (from the Comelec),” Mr. Diokno said in a series of text message to BusinessWorld.

He added that the Department of Public Works and Highways as well as the Department of Transportation are “in the process of identifying local projects that we would like exempted.”

Late last month, Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Ernesto M. Pernia said he will bring up the proposal to the Cabinet at its Feb. 6 meeting, in a bid to push GDP growth amid delayed enactment of the 2019 national budget.

Mr. Pernia added that the economic managers will likely identify projects “of national importance” for exemption from the 45-day ban.

Asked to comment, Comelec Spokesperson James B. Jimenez said the commission cannot grant a blanket exemption before the proposal is made.

“(There’s still no) request… and the Comelec is very willing to help but we cannot give you a blanket assurance unless we see what the assurance is for,” Mr. Jimenez said in an interview.

“Show us that it’s a big ticket. Show us what it is; what is the impact, what is the reach, what is needed to be done now.”

The economic team of President Rodrigo R. Duterte has warned that a delay in enactment of the P3.757-trillion spending plan will hurt GDP growth, as it will leave new projects — including those under the government’s flagship “Build, Build, Build” program — unfunded this semester.

The NEDA also expects a reduction of 1.1-2.3 percentage points in the full-year GDP growth if the 2019 budget is not passed at all.

On Friday, the House of Representatives and the Senate ratified the proposed P3.757-trillion national budget for this year. The 2019 budget bill will then be forwarded to Malacañang for Mr. Duterte’s signature.

Meanwhile, Mr. Diokno said he is certain that the rice tariffication bill will be enacted, and ruled out a veto.

“Let’s wait, it could either lapse into law or the President will sign it. But certainly, a veto is not possible. I’m confident,” Mr. Diokno said in a news conference on Wednesday.

The rice tariffication bill was passed by the House on Aug. 13 and by the Senate on Nov. 14. It was transmitted to Malacañang on Jan. 15.

It is expected to lapse into law by Feb. 17 unless Mr. Duterte signs or vetoes the measure.

Mr. Diokno added that the economic managers sent a memo to the President strongly urging the signing of the bill.

The bill amends Republic Act No. 8178 or the Agricultural Tariffication Act, removing the government from the role of importing rice and allowing the staple to be imported more freely by the private sector while implementing a minimum tariff rate of 35% for rice shipped in from elsewhere in Southeast Asia. — Karl Angelo N. Vidal with Gillian M. Cortez