By Charmaine A. Tadalan and Camille A. Aguinaldo
LAWMAKERS making up the bicameral conference committee now hammering out the final version of the proposed P3.757-trillion national budget for 2019 have committed to ensuring ratification next week, with the measure containing a provision that would spare new infrastructure projects from the 45-day public works ban ahead of the May 13 mid-term elections.
Despite initial disagreements that prompted Senate President Vicente C. Sotto III on Wednesday to threaten to pull out of the talks, House of Representatives Appropriations committee Chairman Rolando G. Andaya, Jr. of Camarines Sur’s 1st district told reporters, when asked on budget ratification timetable: “Feb. 6 is still the deadline, contrary to some rumormongers na magkaka-reenacted tayo (that we will have a reenacted budget).”
Both bicameral committee camps had targeted to approve the proposed 2019 national budget at their level on Jan. 30.
In a statement on Thursday, Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph G. Recto said senators have included a provision under the budget bill’s General Provisions that read: “Notwithstanding the provisions of any law to the contrary, infrastructure projects funded under this Act shall be exempt from the prohibitions against release, disbursement or expenditure of public funds and against construction of public works and delivery of materials for public works.”
The Department of Budget and Management (DBM) had hoped for 2018 year-end enactment of the 2019 national budget in order to front-load spending ahead of the election ban on public works and the rains that usually come in the second semester.
“Both people and progress lose if the building of facilities that they need will stop during the campaign period, more so if the latter coincides with summer — which is the best time, weather-wise, for construction,” Mr. Recto said.
“With the delay in the enactment of 2019 national budget, the above exemption provision is needed for government to catch up with its ‘Build, Build, Build’ timetable.”
The Omnibus Election Code or Batas Pambansa Bilang 881 prohibits the government from disbursing public funds as well as delivering materials for public works 45 days before a regular election. For the May 13 mid-term elections, the ban on public works will run from Mar. 29 to May 12.
Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Ernesto M. Pernia said last Monday that state economic managers will ask the Commission on Elections (Comelec) to exempt new big projects from the public works ban, while Finance Secretary Carlos G. Dominguez III said last week that the budget delay will affect P46 billion worth of projects.
The National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) expects a reduction of 1.1-2.3 percentage points in full-year gross domestic product (GDP) growth if the 2019 budget is not passed at all. According to the Philippine Statistics Authority, the country’s GDP grew by 6.2% last year, lower than the 6.5-6.9% downward-revised 2018 target of the government. For 2019, the government has kept its 7-8% growth target.
In the bicameral conference committee meeting on Wednesday night, Mr. Andaya proposed to do away with the cash-based budget framework for capital outlays and maintenance and other operating expenses (MOOEs) in the 2019 national budget that would have limited funding to procurements that can be done within the fiscal year.
“We are now proposing to abandon the one-year cash-based system, as proposed in the National Expenditure Program,” Mr. Andaya said.
“We proposed that the life of the appropriations cover, be extended to two years, as we usually do for capital outlays and MOOE.”
Senator Loren B. Legarda, who heads the Senate’s Finance committee, and Senate Minority Leader Franklin M. Drilon said in the same meeting that they were “inclined” to accept the proposal in the light of the election ban.
Mr. Drilon said “to adopt a cash-based budgeting this year is extremely difficult because it is an election year, one; and number two, we are delayed in the enactment of the budget.”
“So, if we insist on the cash-based budget, you have barely six months to implement a project and get paid. It’s simply impossible.”
Ms. Legarda likewise, said she is in favor of Mr. Andaya’s proposal. “I want this budget passed and I will not be difficult with the House, but I have to consult with my colleagues to give way completely or to hybrid [sic] it,” she said. “That’s a pending matter which I’m sure will not be a deal-breaker for the budget.”
Senate President Vicente C. Sotto III said in a mobile phone message on Thursday: “I’ll leave that to the recommendation of our Finance chair.”
Ms. Legarda said she will meet with Mr. Andaya on this matter over the weekend.
Sought for comment, University of Asia and the Pacific-School of Law and Governance Professor Natividad Cristina J. Gruet said the proposed shift back to a two-year procurement framework under an obligation-based budget could slow spending that is otherwise “crucial” for President Rodrigo R. Duterte’s “Build, Build, Build” infrastructure development program. “Certainly, it will slow down even further the spending,” Ms. Gruet said in a telephone interview. “As far as the impact on the economy is concerned, we may not be able to feel it immediately just like any other projects, but it will cause further delays and might eventually also create headache for the future administration.”
Also on Wednesday, Mr. Andaya said the case against Budget and Management Sec. Benjamin E. Diokno before the Supreme Court, to force him to implement the remaining tranche of the Salary Standardization Law, may become moot and academic.
“It’s refreshing to know that DBM now will give the fourth tranche of the salary increases, notwithstanding our waiting for the budget to be passed. I think if that pushes through, as revealed by Senator Loren Legarda… that will render our petition for the Supreme Court moot and academic,” Mr. Andaya told reporters in a briefing after the committee meeting.
Ms. Legarda told bicameral conference committee members on Wednesday night that she got DBM’s assurance that funding for the mid-term elections will be taken from the P10-billion unutilized fund and Contingency Fund of the Commission on Elections, while funding for the final salary standardization tranche will come from the miscellaneous personnel benefits fund.
The current 17th Congress goes on a Feb.7-May 19 break and will have its last session days to work on remaining bills on May 20-June 7. Any measure that is not enacted by the end of that period will have to be filed again as a bill in the new 18th Congress that starts on July 22 with President Rodrigo R. Duterte’s State of the Nation Address.