Senate will get budget on time, but no extra funds for DOH, others – House

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MANILA, Philippines — Leaders of the House of Representatives assured President Rodrigo Duterte and the senators on Saturday that they would submit the P4.5-trillion national budget for 2021 to the Senate on time but indicated that the bigger problem was the lack of additional funding that some agencies like the Department of Health (DOH) were seeking.

Malacañang on Saturday pushed the House to submit the budget by Oct. 28 to the Senate to give senators “ample time” to go through it and for Congress to approve it early enough for the President’s signature.

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“The Chief Executive has in many occasions articulated the importance of the timely passage of the budget, given that we are in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic where we need resources to fund government interventions to mitigate the adverse effects of the virus,” presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said in a statement.

In a phone interview on Saturday, ACT-CIS Rep. Eric Yap, the House appropriations committee chair, assured the Palace that the Senate would receive the “soft copy” of House Bill No. 7727, or the General Appropriations Bill (GAB), on Oct. 28.

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“The Oct. 28 date is fine, it’s still safe,” Yap said.

Department allocations

He said Speaker Lord Allan Velasco had already informed Senate President Vicente Sotto III that the House would make a “best effort” to meet the Senate’s request to get hold of the budget bill by the end of the month.

Yap said that “by hook or by crook” the Senate will get it on the promised date.

The P 4.506-trillion “Rebound, Reset and Recover” budget gave the biggest allocations to the following departments: Education, P754.4 billion; Public Works and Highways, P667.3 billion; Interior and Local Government, P246.1 billion; National Defense, P209.1 billion; Health, P203.1 billion; Social Welfare and Development, P171.2 billion; Transportation, P143.6 billion; Agriculture, P66.4 billion; and Labor and Employment, P27.5 billion. The judiciary will get P43.5 billion.

A “small committee” comprised of Yap, House Majority Leader Martin Romualdez, House Senior Deputy Speaker Doy Leachon and 11 other representatives were tasked with receiving agency-initiated amendments until Oct. 19.

Yap stressed that House members could no longer submit amendments to this committee.

“It’s a bit annoying if you see in the news that the delays are because congressmen will insert their own projects. They can check it. Congressmen can no longer do that,” he said.

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The review of the amendments is expected to be completed by Tuesday. The encoding is expected to be done by Oct. 28, the date that the House will transmit the copy of the GAB to the Senate, Yap said.

More serious concern

The printing of the budget bill will take another 10 days at the National Printing Office, Yap said.

Some of the amendments were mere corrections of spelling and clerical errors, or changes, he said.

But what was more serious than these were amendments in the form of requests from various agencies for additional funding, according to Velasco, who spoke with reporters shortly after the House approved the budget on Friday night.

“We will try to look for other funds which we can use there in health, education, especially in ICT (information and communication technology) where we need improvement in our broadband network for our students’ education,” he said.

Velasco also cited the need for additional Air Force helicopters, which could be used for delivering aid and goods to the provinces during the pandemic.

According to Yap, the health department is asking for the largest amount of additional funds — P17 billion.

“It’s not just for the (COVID-19) vaccines but for other valid items. The problem is where will we get the funds? So that’s what we will be studying in their amendment,” Yap said.

During the budget deliberations, lawmakers criticized the allocation of P2.5-billion funding for COVID-19 vaccines, saying it was inadequate to immunize at least 20 million Filipinos as ordered by the President.

“So many agencies wrote us, asking for additional funds,” Yap said. “The DOH is asking for P17 billion more. So where will we get that? We won’t be topping up this amount, it will still come from that (approved amount of P4.5 trillion).”

He said almost all departments had their funding slashed and he did not want to give “false hopes” to those asking for additional funds.

Marikina City Rep. Stella Quimbo, a minority lawmaker who is a member of the committee, noted that DOH needed at least P12 billion to vaccinate 20 million poor Filipinos at a cost of P691 per dose.

“The problem is, the budget has a fixed amount. So even if you want to add to it, it should still sum up to P 4.506 trillion … That will be the job of the small committee. There should be clear parameters as to where to add and where to cut back,” Quimbo said in an interview with ABS-CBN’s “Teleradyo.”

Agusan Rep. Lawrence Fortun said the budget bill approved by the House was not perfect but its passage averted a possible reenacted budget next year.

“There is still a chance to address the issues, such as the substantial deficiencies in the DOH budget for COVID-19 response, the considerable inadequacy of the DepEd’s budget for self-learning modules and the hefty cut in the appropriations for the DSWD, to mention some,” he said in a statement.

“The small committee, and later, the bicameral conference committee should address these critical concerns,” Fortun said.

Velasco told reporters on Friday night that the House had approved a “constitutional budget” with “no pork.”

Illegal insertions

Despite assurances of a pork-free budget that would be submitted on time, Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon on Saturday believed that there were still illegal insertions that he vowed to question.

In a radio interview, Drilon said the Senate was facing a “more daunting task” of scrutinizing the 2021 GAB amid suspicion that the House had inserted funding items to accommodate “requests” from its members.

“What triggered the chaos in the House leadership was the uneven allocations in the legislative districts, so it follows that they will try to scatter the bulging of funds among members. The Senate will now have to check which item is correct or redundant,” he said.

—With reports from Leila B. Salaverria and Melvin Gascon

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