Congress cuts Duterte calamity fund by P11 billion

Jess Diaz - The Philippine Star
Congress cuts Duterte calamity fund by P11 billion
The lawmakers’ version of the President’s budget proposal shows that the national disaster risk reduction and management (NDRRM) fund, formerly the calamity fund, has been reduced by P11 billion to P20 billion.

MANILA, Philippines — President Duterte will have less money for disasters and calamities like the El Niño drought if he signs the proposed 2019 national budget, over which the Senate and the House of Representatives are still quarreling.

The lawmakers’ version of the President’s budget proposal shows that the national disaster risk reduction and management (NDRRM) fund, formerly the calamity fund, has been reduced by P11 billion to P20 billion.

In his budget proposal submitted to Congress in July 2018 after his third State of the Nation Address, Duterte sought P30 billion in NDRRM funding.

Aside from the calamity outlay, lawmakers cut the local government support fund by P7.4 billion to P32.8 billion, the miscellaneous personnel benefits fund (MPBF) by P13.4 billion to P35.6 billion and the pension and gratuity fund by P39 billion to P117 billion.

The MPBF is one of the funding sources for the fourth annual salary increase this year of the more than one million government workers.

With the budget program for the year still pending, the President issued Executive Order No. 76 on March 15 allowing state agencies to pay the increase using available funds in the reenacted 2018 spending law.

Funds taken away from the three lump-sum appropriations amounted to nearly P60 billion, which senators and congressmen realigned to their pet projects.

The Senate and the House have been swapping accusations of realigning tens of billions to their respective pork barrel, delaying the transmittal of the budget to Duterte for signing into law.

Negotiators of the two chambers are set to meet on Monday to try to resolve their impasse.

The House negotiating team is composed of appropriations committee chairman Rolando Andaya Jr. of Camarines Sur, Ronaldo Zamora of San Juan and Edcel Lagman of Albay.

Their Senate counterparts are finance committee chair Loren Legarda and Sens. Panfilo Lacson and Gregorio Honasan.

Speaker Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo told reporters yesterday that her instruction to the Andaya panel was to “end the impasse as soon as possible.” 

“I did not micromanage the putting together of the budget. I don’t want to micromanage also their negotiations because the ones who did the budget know what they did and know what their flexibilities are,” she said.

Lacson and Senate President Vicente Sotto III were insisting that the realignments the House made after the two chambers ratified the bicameral conference committee (bicam) report last Feb. 8 were illegal and unconstitutional. Congressmen have denied the allegation.

Andaya said what they did was to “itemize” or support with a listing of projects at least P99 billion in lump sums he and Legarda had agreed on in February before the bicam report was adopted.

Despite the contradictory positions of the Senate and the House, Lagman said he hoped the negotiators could agree on a compromise.

Long overdue

Meanwhile, teachers’ organizations have welcomed President Duterte’s issuance of a directive that allowed agencies to use available funds in the reenacted budget to provide for the final tranche of salary increase of government employees.

Raymond Basilio, secretary-general of the Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT), said the Department of Budget and Management should now ensure the release of the adjusted salaries of government employees by next month.

“This is long overdue,” he told The STAR. “Though we welcome this, we also call on the government to immediately settle the cases of unpaid salaries and benefits resulting from the non-passage of the 2019 national budget.”

The Teachers’ Dignity Coalition (TDC) also acknowledged Duterte’s move and reminded him of his promise to grant the requested salary increase for teachers.  –  With Janvic Mateo, Paolo Romero

“The fourth tranche for the teachers’ entry-level position would only amount to P575,” said TDC.

“What we want is a legislated salary increase of at least P10,000 across-the-board. That is both to recognize the need for economic augmentation and a proper appraisal of the teaching profession,” it added.

Approved by former president Benigno Aquino III in 2016, the fourth tranche of salary standardization for government employees was not released last January due to non-passage of the 2019 budget.

Duterte’s EO 76 amended Aquino’s order, to allow the use of available funds in the reenacted budget to be used for the salary increase.

The Department of Education (DepEd) earlier said they would need P20 billion this year to cover the salary increase of 800,000 personnel, mostly public school teachers.

Education Secretary Leonor Briones on Monday said public school teachers were bound to suffer due to the budget deadlock.

“The DepEd is the largest agency in the government. We suffer the most. We have the most number of new employees, we have projects which we cannot initiate, we have accountabilities which we cannot settle,” she said.

“It would be appropriate if we shift our attention to those who suffer the consequences of this prolonged debate,” she added.

DepEd Undersecretary for Finance Annalyn Sevilla said their division offices were able to work around limited budget to provide salaries to some 100,000 newly hired teachers whose wages are lodged in the 2019 budget.

However, she said they might face problems if no new budget is approved by April.

“As of end of March, we are OK. The problem is by April. If this will continue, then a lot of payments that we set aside will be due and demandable,” she said in Filipino.

“We cannot have those adjustments by April,” she added, referring to funding sources they used to provide salaries to new teachers.

Based on their assessment, only 74 newly hired teachers did not receive their salaries between January and March as their schools are not under any division office.

In most cases, budget for salaries was taken from funds allocated to division offices, said Sevilla.

“We are working with the DBM to find out where these teachers are so we can request for the additional funding out of the Miscellaneous Personnel Benefits Fund,” she said.

“It is not a big problem for now as of March, but if this will continue and the budget is not passed, we have to coordinate with DBM,” she added. – Janvic Mateo, Paolo Romero

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