House passes 2021 budget
At the end of the four-day special session, the plenary approved House Bill No. 7727 or the 2021 General Appropriations Bill by a vote of 257-6, with the Makabayan bloc voting against the measure.
House passes 2021 budget
Edu Punay (The Philippine Star) - October 17, 2020 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines — The House of Representatives approved last night on third and final reading sthe P4.506-trillion national budget for next year, meeting the deadline set by Malacañang following the delay caused by the squabble over the speakership.

At the end of the four-day special session, the plenary approved House Bill No. 7727 or the 2021 General Appropriations Bill (GAB) by a vote of 257-6, with the Makabayan bloc voting against the measure.

House officials assured senators of the timely submission of the GAB to the Senate – without insertions by congressmen.

They heeded the call of senators for an earlier transmittal of the budget bill to give them ample time to deliberate and have it signed by President Duterte before yearend to avoid a reenacted budget.

Instead of the Nov. 4 submission as earlier planned, Speaker Lord Allan Velasco has committed to Senate President Vicente Sotto III the transmittal of the GAB on Oct. 28, according to appropriations committee chairman Eric Yap.

But earlier yesterday, some senators – including Sotto – expressed doubt on the commitment of the House leadership to transmit the approved budget measure within the month. Sotto said he had been told the submission would be on Nov. 5.

Yap said the senators would get an advance copy of the budget bill on Oct. 28, but would receive the actual printed copy on Nov. 2.

“It will be submitted on Oct. 28, but it’s only an advance copy and not the printed copy yet. We will give them the same copy we will submit to the NPO (National Printing Office), which is only printed on white paper,” the ranking congressman explained to reporters.

“If that is the what the Senate President wants and what the Speaker has committed, of course we should not disappoint our Speaker,” Yap stressed.

Yap, however, lamented that the House would not be able to meet the demand of some senators for submission of the GAB immediately after its passage on third and final reading yesterday.

He said it is impossible to submit the printed copy of the GAB to senators as the process of encoding and printing normally takes 15 days.

Yap also explained that before printing of the budget bill, the House would await the institutional amendments from agencies next week.

“We still need to get the amendments from agencies and then encode them for five days. And then after that, there will be another 10 days for printing of the GAB in the official book form,” he reasoned.

Still, he explained that the current schedule of Congress would allow the Senate to thoroughly deliberate on the budget bill.

“There will be no reenactment of budget because we will be able to submit to the Senate on Nov. 2, which is one week before they resume session as we have previously committed. So I think we’re on the right track,” he pointed out.

And while there would be amendments to the GAB after its passage by the chamber, Yap claimed insertions by congressmen – as previously practiced – would not be allowed.

Institutional amendments

In the past, lawmakers were allowed to propose changes during the period of amendments in the plenary or through a small committee tasked to review proposed amendments before a bill is approved on third and final reading.

Yap said the House decided to do away with this practice and instead follow the practice of institutional amendments by the Senate.

“Amendments should be initiated by the agencies and not by congressmen. So this time, no congressmen can amend on their own; it should be the agencies that must initiate the amendments,” he explained.

Yap said lawmakers pushing for changes in the GAB were required to submit their proposed amendments to the agencies concerned.

The GAB approved by the House reflected the P4.506-trillion proposed appropriations of the Department of Budget and Management but is “subject to amendments to be submitted by agencies.”

During budget deliberations, congressmen had pushed for increases in proposed budgets of agencies like the departments of Health, Agriculture and Education.

Ranking lawmakers lauded the leadership of Velasco for the timely passage of the budget bill.

Deputy Speaker Mikee Romero cited the importance of avoiding a reenacted budget for next year, as the country would need an effective stimulus program to recover from the economic impact of the pandemic.

“As President Duterte and Speaker Velasco rightfully said, the 2021 budget must be passed on time because it will serve as the biggest economic stimulus fund that our nation needs to quickly recover from COVID-19,” the 1-Pacman party-list representative stressed.

Quezon City 5th district Rep. Alfred Vargas, appropriations committee vice chairman, agreed.

“We owe this to the calm and steady hand of our new Speaker. It is also reassuring that in a time of uncertainty, we have a focused, inclusive and effective leadership at the House,” he said in a statement.

For his part, Anakalusugan party-list Rep. Mike Defensor called for an increase in funding for COVID-19 vaccine.

“Congress should allocate at least P20 billion for the procurement of COVID-19 vaccine next year if the government is aiming to vaccinate an initial 20 million poor Filipinos,” the public accounts committee chairman explained.

Last-minute insertions

Meanwhile, ousted deputy speaker and Camarines Sur Rep. LRay Villafuerte has warned of last-minute insertions in the GAB.

Villafuerte said his suspicion – also raised by senators – was heightened by reports that former congressman Rolando Andaya had been actively participating behind the scenes in the budget deliberations under the Velasco speakership.

“Where is their supposed moral high ground now when the senators fret about the undue delay in the House’s submission of the final 2021 GAA bill to the Senate? All along they have made the public believe that the leadership change would ensure the immediate submission by the House of the final copy of the budget to the Senate as soon as the money measure was passed by the chamber at the end of the special session,” he said.

“If you will recall, it was Andaya who was the architect of the post-bicameral committee insertions in the 2019 budget, which was why the General Appropriations Bill at that time suffered numerous delays and eventually resulted in the implementation of a reenacted budget at the onset of 2019 and the President’s subsequent veto of certain portions of the 2019 budget for being illegal insertions,” Villafuerte added.

In the proposed 2021 budget, P1.1 trillion is allotted for the flagship Build, Build, Build program of the President, which is about one-fourth of the record-high national budget.

For agencies implementing the Build, Build, Build program, the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) will get P667.3 billion – the second biggest allocation for a department – for network development, flood management and asset preservation programs; while the Department of Transportation (DOTr) will get P143.6 billion for rail transport, land public transportation and maritime infrastructure.

The Universal Health Care (UHC) program to be used by the Department of Health (DOH) for COVID-19 response programs, on the other hand, will get P203.1 billion.

This will cover P71.4 billion for the National Health Insurance Program implemented by the controversial Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth), P17.3 billion for assistance for indigent patients, P4.8 billion for health facilities enhancement program, P2.7 billion for procurement of personal protective equipment for medical frontliners, P2.5 billion for purchase of COVID-19 vaccine and P1 billion for testing equipment.

Senators’ doubts

Earlier yesterday, senators expressed doubt on the commitment of the new House leadership to submit the approved GAB to the Senate within the month.

Sotto told reporters he reiterated his request to Velasco to give his “best effort” to submit the proposed budget before the end of the month so the Senate finance committee – chaired by Sen. Sonny Angara – can go over it and endorse it to the plenary by mid-November at the earliest.

“Because that (October deadline) will save the Senate at least many days of going home at 4 or 5 a.m. daily just make sure we approve it on time. We start sessions for the budget at 10 a.m. daily,” he said.

He said he is more worried about Senate staff who have been missing sleep in the past weeks due to long drawn out committee hearings.

During the session on Thursday night, Sotto told the plenary he was informed that the House would be submitting the GAB on Nov. 5, which was the same date promised by then speaker Alan Peter Cayetano.

Sen. Panfilo Lacson said he couldn’t understand why it would take the House until Nov. 5 to transmit the measure after its passage on final reading yesterday. He said he sees no reason to delay the transmission “unless they again have a plan to make amendments after the third reading (approval).” The same concern was raised by Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon.

“Nothing much has changed from the previous leadership,” Lacson said.

Sen. Bong Go renewed his call on congressmen to set aside politics and focus on approving the budget.

“I am appealing to my fellow legislators. Let us pass the budget on time. To our congressmen, please pass it and send it to us in the Senate where we are ready to adjust our schedule. We can resume session earlier than scheduled,” Go said in Filipino in an interview after the turnover of newly acquired fire trucks and firefighting equipment at Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City on Thursday. “We cannot accept a reenacted budget.”

Go said Duterte earlier expressed anger over reports that the government is faced with the prospect of operating on a reenacted budget next year. – Paolo Romero

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