Appropriations committee chairman Camarines Sur Rep. Rolando Andaya Jr. and his Senate counterpart Loren Legarda jointly headed the conference.
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Congress finally ratifies delayed P3.7 trillion 2019 budget
Paolo Romero (The Philippine Star) - February 9, 2019 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines — The Senate and the House of Representatives ratified last night the P3.7-trillion budget program for this year, ending nearly six weeks of acrimonious finger-pointing among lawmakers and executive officials over “pork barrel” insertions.

Fifteen senators voted for the approval of the outlay while five others, including Minority Leader Franklin Drilon and Risa Hontiveros, Francis Pangilinan and Panfilo Lacson, voted against it.

Earlier yesterday, Malacañang – through Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles – assured the public that the 2019 outlay would be devoid of “insertions” of funds for projects, also known as pork barrel, and would be able to withstand scrutiny if challenged before the Supreme Court.

The House and Senate contingents in the bicameral conference committee earlier met at Camp Aguinaldo to sign their report hours before they presented it to the two chambers for ratification.

Appropriations committee chairman Camarines Sur Rep. Rolando Andaya Jr. and his Senate counterpart Loren Legarda jointly headed the conference.

The conference committee report showed that the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), where pork barrel funds are usually hidden, received the biggest increase.

The House added P20.7 billion to the DPWH budget, the Senate increased it further by P25.4 billion and the bicam padded it by P274 million, for a total of P46.4 billion.

The Department of Health received an additional P17.6 billion.

The bicam made small adjustments in several agencies such as the Department of Education, which was given P2.5 billion more; and state universities and colleges, whose funding was augmented by P2.8 billion.

The bicam realigned a total of P98.7 billion, nearly half of which was added to the DPWH. A huge part of the realignments apparently came from the P75 billion that Andaya claimed was inserted by the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) in the budget.

The other last minute changes the bicam adopted included an “institutional amendment” by the two chambers of P800 million for public school teachers as well as a provision junking Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno’s cash-based budgeting scheme.

They also approved a provision proposed by Andaya mandating DBM’s release of the internal revenue allotments of local government units as defined by the Supreme Court in a recent ruling.

The spending bill was finally passed amid heated quarrel between senators and congressmen over tens of billions in pork barrel funds hidden in the proposed outlay, including the supposed P75-billion DBM insertion.

By all indications, such funds were retained in the conference committee version.

Lacson described the proposed budget as “pork-laden.”

He lamented that despite the uproar over the congressional pork barrel and the Supreme Court decision outlawing such appropriations, certain senators would divide P23 billion to P25.4 billion among themselves, while House members were each allocated an additional P160 million on top of infrastructure funds for their districts and “billion-peso insertions by a number of their colleagues.”

He urged the President to use his line-item veto power to excise the Congress version of the budget of pork.

Andaya admitted that huge slabs of pork were kept in the proposed 2019 budget.

But he stressed senators cornered a bigger share.

Lacson and Sens. Ralph Recto and Loren Legarda have owned up to budget insertions.

Lacson said he introduced institutional amendments requested by agencies, including more than P4 billion for an anti-terrorism Army battalion.

Recto said he proposed similar changes, among them P18 billion for the universal health care program.

Legarda, who is finishing her senatorial tenure on June 30 this year, had admitted to allocating tens of million for the province of Antique, where she is running for congresswoman.

Sources said another senator allocated huge amounts to local government units where his relatives are candidates in the May elections.

Others “parked” their pork barrel allotments in districts represented by congressmen-friends.

In the course of the bicam talks, the House panel repeatedly urged its Senate counterpart to reveal in detail the P190 billion in realignments it made in its version of the budget and their authors.

Andaya described the realignments as pork. The Legarda panel consistently ignored the disclosure calls.

On the part of the House, it released a nine-page list of pork barrel allocations topped by the first district of Davao del Norte, which former speaker Pantaleon Alvarez represents, with P8.4 billion. At the bottom is Basilan with P408 million.

The list was based on President Duterte’s version of the budget that was put together before Alvarez was ousted as speaker. In its version, the House revised the allocations but failed to release a new list.

Lacson said present House leaders and their allies received billions in additional funds. 

Studying every line

At Malacañang, Nograles emphasized the Office of the President and the DBM will study every line in the budget before Duterte finally puts his imprimatur on it.

“We will go through each and every item and certainly the President has the power to exercise his line item veto as he has previously done in past budgets. Obviously, if there is anything irregular there, the President will know what to do,” Nograles said.

Asked if the 2019 budget would really be pork-free, Nograles said the President and his team would ensure that everything in the document is in the proper order.

“Yes, everything, because everything legal here. Obviously, the last thing we want anyone to do is to question it in the Supreme Court, and we want it clean and we want this budget implemented,” Nograles said.

He said the budget approval, although delayed, would significantly help the government achieve its development projects.

“We all understand how important the budget is to boosting economic growth and translating that to programs, activities and projects that will redound to the benefit of our citizens,” he said.

While Duterte did not discuss the pork barrel controversy at the Cabinet meeting last Wednesday, Nograles said the Chief Executive was thoroughly briefed on the status of the budget measure. – With Jess Diaz, Christina Mendez

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