Bloody bicam on budget expected

Rhodina Villanueva, Paolo Romero - The Philippine Star
Bloody  bicam on budget  expected
The Senate ended its plenary deliberations on the GAB on Wednesday night and from yesterday until Sunday, the committee on finance chaired by Sen. Loren Legarda will write the list of amendments proposed by her colleagues. She intends to report it on Monday before the measure is approved.

MANILA, Philippines — The Senate aims to pass the proposed P3.7-trillion national budget for 2019 on Monday, but lawmakers predict a “bloody” bicameral conference committee proceeding when the chamber reconciles its version of the General Appropriations Bill (GAB) with that of the House of Representatives.

The Senate ended its plenary deliberations on the GAB on Wednesday night and from yesterday until Sunday, the committee on finance chaired by Sen. Loren Legarda will write the list of amendments proposed by her colleagues. She intends to report it on Monday before the measure is approved.

Since President Duterte has certified the GAB as urgent, the measure will be approved on second reading, and on third and final reading in just one plenary session, and the proceedings are expected to be swift on Monday.

“The next battleground is the ‘goddam bloody’ bicam conference (committee meeting) to commence early next week,” Sen. Panfilo Lacson said in his Twitter account.

The bicameral conference committee is composed of delegates from the Senate and the House and is convened whenever there is need to reconcile conflicting provisions of their respective versions of the budget bill.

Once a reconciled version of the GAB is hammered out in the bicameral committee, it will be ratified by both chambers and sent to Duterte for his signature, probably by the first week of February. 

The Senate deliberations have centered on the so-called “insertions” of at least P100 billion in the GAB allegedly by the Department of Budget and Management (DBM).

Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno earlier admitted to House members during a Question Hour last year that some P75 billion in additional appropriations were made to the budget before it was submitted to the chamber.

Last week, some senators, including Lacson, looked at other items or projects where the questionable P75 billion can be realigned as the funding appeared to be suspicious as to its purpose.

The items, which the realigned insertion could fund, include P24 billion for the Department of Health’s Health Facilities Enhancement Program, and even the suggestion for the government takeover of the shipyard of the bankrupt Hanjin Heavy Industries and Construction Philippines in Subic.

Lacson said the first hurdle in the bicameral committee is for senators to stand “side-by-side on what we have agreed both in plenary and in our informal discussions in the (Senate) lounge.”

“The next and bigger challenge is to convince our counterparts (in the House) during the bicam to lose major portions of their realignments,” he said, referring to projects of congressmen they put in the GAB.

He warned that while senators may be in general agreement to realign the P75 billion, the funding may just be “chopped” up into small chunks of pork.

“That should make the bicam meeting early next week bloody and sweaty,” he said.

Camarines Sur Rep. Luis Ray Villafuerte slammed House Majority Leader Rolando Andaya’s ploy to hold another hearing on “trumped-up” charges of irregularities against the DBM to derail approval of the 2019 GAA.

Villafuerte said Andaya’s move to hold a follow-up “hack job” against Diokno is yet another compelling reason for him to quit as majority leader.

“This is a bizarre situation in which the House majority leader has, for the first time ever, orchestrated a demolition job against Diokno, who is an alter ego of the President,” he said. “This has unmasked his role as a sleeper agent of the opposition out to destabilize the Duterte administration ahead of the midterm elections by sabotaging the President’s proposed budget that is designed to flesh out his priority programs.”

He said a majority of congressmen in the ruling coalition has wanted a speedy approval of the 2019 GAA in support of Duterte’s vision for high and inclusive growth.

The Duterte administration’s operation on a reenacted 2018 budget has undermined the implementation of the President’s priority programs such as the “Build, Build, Build” infrastructure modernization initiative and the salary adjustments for government workers and uniformed personnel, Villafuerte said.

Meanwhile, the Social Watch Philippines (SWP), a budget watchdog, has appealed to the House and the Senate to fast-track deliberations for the proposed budget following an impasse last year which consequently led to a reenacted budget at least for the first two months of 2019.

Ma. Victoria Raquiza, SWP co-convenor, said that operating under a re-enacted budget would hamper the delivery of basic goods and services necessary to uplift people’s lives.

“The delay in the passage of the proposed budget law would be unfair to our people,” she added.

Raquiza added that such delay was largely due to the rescinding of support of the House of Representatives for the more efficient cash-based budgeting system that was introduced by the DBM, thereby delaying approval of the 2019 GAB. 

It is the first time in 10 years since the government last operated on a re-enacted budget. The re-enactment of the 2004 and 2006 budgets, under the term of then president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, were both stretched for an entire year, the group noted.

“With efforts to rechannel allocations which were questioned by the Senate, we hope that the Senate and the bicameral committee panel champion SWP’s proposed alternative allocation in the 2019 budget bill, especially on the protection of the rights of the child,” said SWP co-convenor Rene Raya.

While anticipating a Senate version of the 2019 budget early next week, SWP warned about the effect of a possible deadlock at the bicam level, given that certain House initiatives may either be removed or realigned by their counterpart in the Senate. 

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