By Camille A. Aguinaldo
THE SENATE on Monday approved its version of the P3.757-trillion proposed national budget for 2019 on second and third reading in quick session and moved to form a bicameral conference panel.
But an upcoming conference with a counterpart panel of the House of Representatives could prove “bloody,” according to a vice-chairman of the Senate Finance committee, citing significant differences between the two versions.
Amendments introduced in the proposed budget, according to Finance committee Chairperson Senator Loren B. Legarda, included restoration of P16.796 billion in the Department of Health budget for the its health facilities and P4.797 billion for “human resource for health development.”
The budget of the Department of Public Works and Highways was reduced by the Senate due to the road right-of-way issues and various projects which were not part of the agency’s original submission to the Department of Budget and Management (DBM).
The Senate has also took from unprogrammed funds to provide for the P10-billion Rice Competitiveness Enhancement Fund, the P10-billion coconut farmer and industry development fund, P18 billion for implementation of the universal healthcare program, and P40 billion for the envisioned Bangsamoro autonomous region.
The House approved House Bill No. 8169, or the “General Appropriations Bill for fiscal year 2019,” on third and final reading on Nov. 20. Both chambers have until Feb. 8 to reconcile and ratify the budget before Congress goes on break for the May 13 elections.
The Senate has designated Ms. Legarda, Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph G. Recto, Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel F. Zubiri, Senate Minority Leader Franklin M. Drilon, Senators Cynthia A. Villar, Panfilo M. Lacson, Juan Edgardo M. Angara, Nancy S. Binay-Angeles, Joseph Victor G. Ejercito and Paolo Benigno A. Aquino IV as members of the chamber’s contingent to the bicameral conference committee on the measure.
Mr. Lacson, one of the Finance committee’s five vice-chairmen, expects the bicameral conference committee on the 2019 national budget to be “bloody” due to significant differences between the versions of the Senate and of the House. “The problem [in the] bicam[eral conference committee]: this is going to be a bit bloody because there’s a wide discrepancy between the Senate and House of Representatives versions,” he said in an interview over ABS-CBN News Channel.
Senate President Vicente C. Sotto III told reporters that the bicameral conference committee on the proposed 2019 budget will start on Tuesday, Jan. 22. “And hopefully next week, we will ratify it and it will be ready for the signature of the President,” Mr. Sotto said.
Camarines Sur 1st district Rep. Rolando G. Andaya, Jr. on Monday assumed chairmanship of the House Committee on Appropriations and passed on his position as Majority Leader to now former Deputy Speaker Fredenil H. Castro
“I am stepping down as Majority Leader to assume the chairmanship of the Committee on Appropriations,” Mr. Andaya said in a statement on the same day that the Senate approved its 2019 national budget version.
“The House leadership under Speaker Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has accepted my offer to relinquish my post and lead the contingent tasked to complete one major unfinished business left in our calendar: the passage of the 2019 national budget,” he explained.
“We are now confronted with two choices: rubber-stamping the passage of a greatly-flawed budget on time, or using more time to craft a better one purged of its in-born defects.”
Newly seated Majority Leader Castro said the leadership change had long been an agreement between him and Mr. Andaya. “It’s part of the agreement or understanding… [t]hat… was agreed long before Congressman Andaya assumed the position as majority leader.”
The leadership change comes amid investigations against Secretary Benjamin E. Diokno on alleged irregular budget practices of the Department of Budget and Management and an alleged ouster plot against Mr. Andaya.
Ms. Arroyo herself on Monday pushed for the retention of the P20-billion increase in the P123.7-billion proposed budget of the Department of Agriculture (DA) for 2019.
“The House had increased the budget of DA by P20 billion upon my instruction because I noticed that since my administration, the budget for DA had dropped significantly,” she said in a statement.
Ms. Arroyo said she will direct House bicameral conference committee members to ensure the increase is retained in the final version of the 2019 national budget. “We have to make sure the increase in the DA budget is retained in the final budget because it will enable the DA to implement measures that will help farmers and increase production needed to control inflation,” she said, referring to food items’ key role in driving inflation to multi-year highs in 2018.
Ms. Arroyo said during her time as President from January 2001 to mid-2010, about six percent of the national budget was allocated for agriculture, which went down to 1.5% in the succeeding administration.
In a separate statement, issued also on Monday, Ms. Arroyo said she will also instruct the House contingent in the bicameral panel to include at least a P100-million allocation for urban poor “acquisition of titles and reblocking of individual lots for the 422-hectare NGC in Quezon City.” Residents in NGC were awarded their own lands through the Republic Act No. 9207, or the National Government Center Housing and Land Utilization Act of 2003, which Ms. Arroyo signed during her presidency. It was reported, however, that 20% of the beneficiaries have not been awarded their titles.
The Department of Budget and Management said on Monday that contracts for ongoing projects will be awarded under the reenacted budget for the first few months of this year.
“Awarding of contracts may already proceed for programs and projects that underwent early procurement if the amount needed can be covered by the funds available under a reenacted budget,” Budget Secretary Benjamin E. Diokno was quoted as saying in a press statement.
According to Circular 09-2018 issued by the Government Procurement Policy Board, procurement covering recurring projects included in both the 2018 General Appropriations Act and 2019 National Expenditures Program “may be awarded” on the basis of the 2019 reenacted budget.
Congress failed to ratify the proposed 2019 national budget before 2018 ended, leading to automatic reenactment of last year’s spending plan. While this ensures funding for projects already under way, a re-enacted budget does not provide money for new projects that had been lined up under the new spending plan. — with Charmaine A. Tadalan and Karl Angelo N. Vidal