No more re-enacted budget, only 'acting' Budget chief
COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva (The Philippine Star) - January 3, 2020 - 12:00am

We could only be thankful to our country’s 1987 Constitution that provided, among other things, automatic appropriations in case Congress fails to deliver before the end of the year an approved annual budget of the national government. For all its wealth, the filthy rich country run by the American government, the operations of their entire bureaucracy get suspended if the United States Congress fails to submit the federal budget before the fiscal year ends.

But for us here, the Philippine government has been operating under the 2019 re-enacted budget for the past three days now of the first week of the new year 2020. In fact, this is not the first time we are having a re-enacted budget.

The most recent one is the 2019 budget approved by the defunct 17th Congress, the signing into law of which was four-months delayed. It was the result of charges and counter-charges of alleged “insertions” that found its way into the 2019 budget after it already went through the bicameral conference committee, or bicam for short. It is the so-called “third congress” that reconciles differing versions of bills approved by the Senate and the Lower House.

Consequently, as much as P97 billion of these “insertions” got eventually vetoed when President Rodrigo Duterte finally signed it into law in April last year.

On Dec. 20, President Duterte signed Republic Act (RA) 11464, which extended the validity of the 2019 budget, to help catch up in government underspending, and apparently in anticipation of the delay in the enactment of this year’s GAB. The 2019 budget was in effect for only six months last year due to its late enactment and the election ban on the implementation of infrastructure projects.

RA 11464 extended the validity of appropriations for capital (infrastructure) outlay and maintenance and other operating expenses in the 2019 budget to Dec. 31, 2020.

The extension will henceforth enable government agencies more time to implement projects and procure services and goods.

This year though, the re-enacted budget is just a temporary situation and only for a brief period only this time.

The P4.1 trillion General Appropriations Bill (GAB) for 2020 is scheduled for signing into law by President Duterte this Monday, Jan. 6 in ceremonies to be held at Malacanang Palace. This was clearly the signal from invitations sent out by Malacanang to key leaders of the 18th Congress to attend the ceremonial signing of the 2020 GAB.

Invited to the Palace rites, among them are Senate President Vicente Sotto III, Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano, Sen. Sonny Angara and Rep. Isidro Ungab, chairmen respectively of the Senate finance committee and the House appropriations committee.

The proposed 2020 national budget was ratified by the Senate and the House of Representatives before adjourning for the Christmas break last Dec. 11. This should have been signed before the end of year. However, it took some days for the several volumes of the enrolled budget bill documents to be printed.

Of course, the consolidated version of the 2020 GAB put together by the bicam jointly headed by Angara and Ungab have to go through first the final vetting and check by the Department of Budget and Management (DBM). Only then after the 2020 GAB will be endorsed for the President’s approval and signing into law.

At least, the delay in the approval of the 2020 GAB did not have anything to do with post-bicam “insertions” that embroiled the 2019 budget law.

Still, however, it is reasonable to expect President Duterte would exercise anew his line-item veto on several provisions in the 2020 GAB that did not conform with his originally submitted list under the National Expenditure Program (NEP) lined up by his administration for implementation this year.

The final Congress-approved version of the 2020 spending bill shows the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) will have the biggest share of the budget at P580.9 billion. This includes the largest augmentation of P51.1 billion as a result of the bicam process.

At the surface, it would seem the education sector again gets the lion share of the annual budget in conformity with our 1987 Constitution. In the 2020 GAB, the Department of Education will have P521.4 billion, including an additional P1.7 billion. State universities and colleges will have P73.7 billion, which reflects an augmentation of more than P8 billion; while the Commission on Higher Education will have P46.7 billion, P7 billion more than what the President had proposed. In effect, the combined funding for these educational institutions, the education sector still gets the largest share of the budget.

Cayetano has repeatedly assured the public in general and President Duterte in particular, that he has made sure there are no pork barrel fund insertions in the 2020 GAB. The Speaker has vehemently denied the persistent accusations of Sen. Panfilo Lacson of what to him appears pork barrel-like “insertions” in certain lump sum allocations included in the 2020 GAB.

The Supreme Court, in a precedent ruling in November 2013, struck down the congressional pork barrel as unconstitutional. The ruling bars lawmakers from including in the annual budget lump-sum appropriations of government projects that are subject to their discretion and under their direction.

The scheduled signing into law of the 2020 GAB is also seen to give a push to the confirmation of “acting” Budget Secretary Wendel Avisado whose nomination got by-passed last month. Like Ungab who once worked at Davao City Hall, Avisado served as administrator during Duterte’s watch as Mayor.

It was actually a technical by-pass when the 25-man Commission on Appointments failed to pass upon the confirmation of Avisado before they adjourned for the Christmas break. Avisado’s ad interim appointment will be submitted again to the CA when both chambers of the 18th Congress resume session starting Jan. 20.

Although the 2019 re-enacted budget lapses by Monday’s signing into law of 2020 GAB, Avisado will remain, however, as  “acting” Budget Secretary.

ALAN PETER CAYETANO SONNY ANGARA VICENTE SOTTO III
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