House to seek P5 billion more for 2021 calamity fund
In a statement yesterday, Speaker Lord Allan Velasco said the House would propose the increase of at least P5 billion during the bicameral conference on the proposed P4.506-trillion national budget for next year.
STAR/ File
House to seek P5 billion more for 2021 calamity fund
Edu Punay (The Philippine Star) - November 23, 2020 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines — The House of Representatives will seek an increase in the calamity fund under the proposed 2021 national budget for the reconstruction of areas devastated by recent typhoons.

In a statement yesterday, Speaker Lord Allan Velasco said the House would propose the increase of at least P5 billion during the bicameral conference on the proposed P4.506-trillion national budget for next year.

The two chambers of Congress will convene the conference after the Senate approves its own version of the budget.

Velasco noted that the House passed the 2021 spending bill before Typhoons Quinta, Rolly and Ulysses wreaked havoc in many parts of the country.

“Given the tremendous damage caused by these successive strong typhoons, it is imperative that we augment the calamity fund in next year’s spending plan. We have to help our people rebuild their lives and their communities,” Velasco said.

The Speaker cited reports from concerned agencies that the total damage caused by Quinta (Molave), Rolly (Goni) and Ulysses (Vamco) to infrastructure and agriculture had reached P35 billion.

Under the budget submitted by President Duterte to Congress in August, which was approved by the House in its 2021 General Appropriations Bill (GAB), P20 billion will be allotted for the calamity fund next year, up by P4 billion from this year’s P16 billion.

Of this P20 billion, however, P5 billion will go to Marawi reconstruction, while P6.25 billion will augment the quick response funds of six agencies.

Of the P6.25 billion, P2 billion will go to the Department of Education, P1.25 billion to the Department of Social Welfare and Development, P1 billion to the Department of Agriculture, P1 billion to the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), P500 million to the Department of Health, and P500 million to the Department of National Defense-Office of Civil Defense.

“That’s a total of P11.25 billion that is specifically appropriated, leaving a balance of P8.75 billion that President Duterte could use to help victims of calamities and other disasters. That balance is not even enough to rebuild Bicol, which was hardly hit by Typhoon Rolly,” Velasco said.

That is why next year’s calamity fund has to be increased to provide additional funds for the reconstruction of typhoon-damaged communities, according to the Speaker.

“Alternatively, we can allocate the additional money in the budgets of the agencies involved in reconstruction and helping typhoon victims,” he said.

The Marinduque congressman gave assurance that there are enough appropriations in the proposed budget from which the needed funds could be taken.

Camarines Sur Rep. LRay Villafuerte had earlier sought increase in calamity funds of provinces ravaged by recent typhoons.

Villafuerte urged Duterte and the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) to augment the depleted calamity funds of the badly hit provinces in Bicol and Southern Tagalog regions, and other areas in Luzon.

“I am appealing to the President and the DBM to supplement the respective disaster risk reduction and management funds of LGUs (local government units) in badly hit places of CamSur and elsewhere in Bicol and Southern Luzon for their immediate relief and rehabilitation operations,” Villafuerte said in a statement.

“The affected LGUs are in dire need of calamity fund augmentation so they could attend to the immediate food and shelter needs of their respective constituents, especially those who have lost their homes partially or completely, and who now remain stuck in evacuation centers with nowhere else to go,” he added.

The Camarines Sur representative said even before the onslaught of the recent typhoons, the calamity funds of the LGUs in badly hit places were already depleted and spent on their respective localities’ COVID-19 response programs.

He cited for instance his province, which suffered “a four-fold blow” by the pandemic, Quinta and Rolly over the past two weeks, and Ulysses late last week.

Cayetano answerable

The issues on billions of infrastructure projects of congressional districts in the proposed P4.506-trillion national budget for next year raised by Sen. Panfilo Lacson should be addressed by former speaker Alan Peter Cayetano, two congressmen said over the weekend.

Negros Oriental 3rd District Rep. Arnolfo Teves Jr. and Probinsyano Ako party-list Rep. Jose Singson Jr. pointed out that it was during Cayetano’s leadership when the 2021 GAB was prepared.

“The previous House leadership is in a better position to explain the allegations of unfair distribution of budget and double insertions. Former speaker Cayetano and his allies should be asked about it. The budget was already finished before the President called for a special session,” Teves said.

“We have to remember that the 2021 GAB was almost or already complete even before President Duterte called for a four-day special session to approve it on final reading last month,” Singson said.

“You cannot expect the new leadership to go over the voluminous budget bill and examine every item therein in just four days,” he added.

Singson argued that it would be understandable if there were items in the GAB that may have been overlooked during the special session “given the very short deadline.”

Teves recalled that the issue on infrastructure projects was contentious even before Velasco took the House leadership last month.

“There were unhappy lawmakers, and that includes me, even before Speaker Velasco took over because of the inequitable distribution of budget for congressional districts,” he said.

Teves, who raised the matter during budget deliberations in September, decried what he then described as “unequal distribution” of DPWH funds to various districts nationwide.

He also questioned the massive allocation for some legislative districts, including those represented by Cayetano and his wife Lani, both representatives of Taguig City.

Teves noted that the two congressional districts of Taguig-Pateros represented by the Cayetanos were getting an additional P11 billion in public works budget under the 2021 National Expenditure Program, after securing P10 billion worth of infrastructure projects for the current year.

Meanwhile, a House leader said this issue could be clarified and addressed once the Senate finishes its budget deliberations.

Deputy Speaker Lito Atienza said the questions raised by Lacson would be settled once the 2021 GAB reaches the bicameral conference committee.

“The proposed 2021 national budget will still go through a bicameral conference, where the Senate and the House will reconcile their versions. We are confident that all these issues about the budget will be threshed out during the bicam,” Atienza said.

The congressmen issued the statement in response to Lacson’s revelations about the multibillion-peso infrastructure projects in congressional districts found in the 2021 GAB.

Lacson has flagged the huge amount allocated for infrastructure in each congressional district, ranging from P600 million to P15.351 billion, with at least 220 districts lodged with over P1 billion under the 2021 national budget.

During his presentation in the budget hearing of the DPWH, the senator revealed that the infrastructure allocations for the congressional districts total over P474.8 billion.

Lacson, however, did not identify which district got which allocation.

Approval this week

The Senate is expected to approve this week its version of the P4.5-trillion national budget for 2021, with amendments amounting to hundreds of billions of pesos that senators stressed were necessary to help the country fight the COVID-19 pandemic, provide relief to disaster-hit provinces and revive the economy.

The chamber finished last week its marathon plenary deliberations on the 2021 GAB, and Senate President Vicente Sotto III said they aim to wrap up the period of amendments today or tomorrow at the latest.

Immediately after writing the amendments, senators are expected to pass the GAB on second reading, and third and final reading in just one plenary session as Duterte certified the spending bill as urgent, which dispenses with the three-day interval rule between the two stages of approval.

After the Senate prints its approved version of the GAB for distribution, the chamber and the House of Representatives will convene the bicameral conference committee to work on reconciling the conflicting provisions of their respective versions of the proposed budget.

“Even on holidays, there will be bicam (meetings), and if we get lucky, we might be able to ratify (the budget) on December 6, 7 or 8, if there’s no deadlock,” Sotto told reporters.

So far, there are no indications of a deadlock between the Senate and the House, but the proceedings at the bicameral committee could still be heated as senators, particularly Lacson, are eyeing to lop off billions of pesos worth of what they suspect to be corruption-tainted infrastructure projects in many congressional districts that are to be funded in the proposed budget and realign them to other programs.

At the outset, the committee on finance, chaired by Sen. Sonny Angara, has already made at least P50 billion worth of amendments to the House version of the GAB before the Senate started its plenary discussions two weeks ago.

LORD ALLAN VELASCO
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