Lawmakers see possible Budget transmission by next week

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Vicente C. Sotto III

LEGISLATORS expressed guarded confidence about the progress made in resolving the 2019 Budget impasse, with both Senators and Congressmen giving next week as a possible time frame for sending the measure to the Palace for signing.

The door is now open for resolving the dispute between the two chambers of Congress following the retrieval of the P3.757 trillion national budget for 2019 by the House of Representatives from the Senate on Wednesday, Senate President Vicente C. Sotto III said Thursday.

“Perhaps what we could say is that the door is now open for a possible cure to the impasse… The entire Senate supports the fact that we want to approve or the President to sign something — or a bill or a budget that the Senate ratified and that the House also ratified, faithful to what we agreed upon,” he told reporters at the Kapihan sa Senado media forum.

“So perhaps the door is open. We can now agree to revert to the original state (of the national budget) that was agreed upon in the bicameral (conference committee), what they itemized, what the Senate itemized, and (Congress) ratified. That should be the one,” he added.

Both chambers are disputing the version of the Budget that emerged after representatives of both Houses ratified the document in bicameral conference committee. Both sides claim that the Budget was modified after ratification, while some legislators have said that the changes represent “itemizations” of certain lump sums.

“We hope that this budget law will be signed before the end of the month. As soon as possible, (maybe) next week,” Albay-1st district Rep. Edcel C. Lagman told BusinessWorld in a telephone interview Thursday.

Mr. Lagman is among the members of the three-man team Speaker Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo instructed to meet with the Senate to resolve the impasse, which has resulted in the 2018 Budget being re-enacted.

Also among the members of the House contingent are Appropriations Committee chair Rolando G. Andaya, Jr. of the 1st district of Camarines Sur and San Juan Rep. Ronaldo B. Zamora.

Mr. Sotto said three members each from the Senate and the House of will meet on Monday to discuss points of contention.

He said the Senate will be sending Senators Loren B. Legarda and Panfilo M. Lacson, chair and vice chair of the Senate committee on finance, as well as Senator Gregorio B. Honasan II.

“I know the three (senators) will stick to what we approved and what we ratified,” Mr. Sotto said.

Asked about the schedule of the national budget’s transmittal to Malacañang, the Senate leader said, “Hopefully, by next week.”

The House of Representatives on Wednesday “physically retrieved” the national budget sent on March 11 to the Senate on the orders of Speaker Arroyo. Mr. Sotto refused to sign the measure due to the post-ratification changes.

The national budget remains pending in Congress more than a month after ratification on Feb. 8.

Mr. Andaya said on Wednesday that retrieving the budget was not an “act of withdrawing or backtracking” from their earlier position that the Budget, as itemized after the Feb. 8 ratification, was legal and constitutional.

When asked how the House contingent plans to resolve the dispute, Mr. Lagman said “we don’t want to preempt anything, let us go into the dialogue.”

The Speaker said Tuesday the House will insist on a budget that has no lump sum appropriation, citing the Supreme Court ruling that lump sums are unconstitutional.

Mr. Sotto refused to sign the budget over allegations the House realigned P79 billion of the Department of Public Works and Highways and P15 billion of the Department of Health allocations. Mr. Andaya, meanwhile, said the Senate had also realigned the ratified budget, which amounted to P75 billion.

The inter-agency Development Budget Coordination Committee slashed its growth forecast for 2019 gross domestic product (GDP) to 6-7% from 7-8%; while the National Economic and Development Authority said GDP growth will decline to 6.1-6.3% if the budget is reenacted until April and 4.9-5.1% if until August.

Mr. Sotto said the national budget will no longer be delayed if the House of Representatives “leaves alone” the allocations of some projects identified by the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) under its budget, known as the Major Final Output (MFO) 1 and MFO 2.

He said it was the Senate’s Legislative Budget Research and Monitoring Office (LBRMO) that raised the red flag over the changes made by the House in the DPWH budget post-ratification.

“The (House) placed (the funding) in local infrastructure projects and other districts identified by congressmen. The MFO 1 and MFO 2 were identified by the DPWH. So that’s a big difference. That’s not a typo error and it’s important that it was altered. Therefore, it’s not part of what we ratified,” he said.

“If we submit (to Malacañang) the original version that we ratified, then there’s no problem. I will sign it and submit it to the President,” he later added.

Asked about the Senate’s plans if the House insists on the post-ratification changes, Mr. Sotto said the national government would then continue to operate on a reenacted budget until August.

“If you stand pat saying that you will stick to what you did in the internal realignment, removing from the DPWH-identified projects in the MFO1, MFO2 and put it in other districts, after we ratified and you did not tell us about that in the bicam, then we have a reenacted budget until August if that is their opinion,” he said.

“All they have to do is to submit what we agreed upon in bicam and ratified, and we will have no problem at all,” he added. — Camille A. Aguinaldo and Charmaine A. Tadalan