Multi-speaking lawmakers

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva - The Philippine Star

Exercising its constitutional power of the purse, the 19th Congress have the “final say” on how the General Appropriations Act (GAA) will be allocated and used under the National Expenditure Program (NEP) as approved for the year, Department of Budget and Management (DBM) Secretary Amenah Pangandaman asserted. Thus, the DBM chief finds it odd that there is now the issue of alleged unconstitutional increase in the unprogrammed funds in the Congress-approved 2024 GAA.

Nonetheless, Pangandaman defended the constitutionality of the unprogrammed funds under the P5.768-trillion GAA for 2024 as approved by Congress and signed into law by President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. (PBBM) on Dec. 20 last year.

Unprogrammed appropriations provide standby authority to government agencies to incur additional obligations for priority programs or projects when revenue collection exceeds targets, and when additional grants or foreign funds are generated.

Speaking at the Kapihan sa Manila Bay news forum last Wednesday, Pangandaman confirmed that unprogrammed appropriations indeed increased to P731.4 billion from the original DBM proposal of P281.9 billion. As the DBM Secretary, Pangandaman is one of the officials from the Executive Branch impleaded in the petition filed by three opposition Congressmen who questioned the Congress-approved increase of the unprogrammed allocations in the 2024 GAA.

Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman, along with Camarines Sur Rep. Gabriel Bordado Jr. and Basilan Rep. Mujiv Hataman, filed a 27-page petition asking the Supreme Court (SC) to stop the funding, the release and the implementation of what they claimed were “constitutionally infirm” excess appropriations added to the unprogrammed allocations over and above the original amount in the President’s proposed 2024 GAA.

The petitioners impleaded both the Executive Branch as well as the respective leaderships of both chambers of the 19th Congress, namely, Senate president Juan Miguel Zubiri and House Speaker Leyte Rep. Ferdinand Martin Romualdez. Likewise named respondents were Sen. Sonny Angara and Rep. Elizaldy Co, chairmen respectively of the Senate committee on finance, and the House committee on appropriations.

Lagman accused his pro-administration House colleagues for allegedly having “inserted” as much as P449.5 billion more to the original amount during the closed-door meeting of the bicameral (bicam) conference committee that reconciled the Senate and House versions of the 2024 budget bill.

Offhand, Pangandaman said the questioned increase in the unprogrammed funds did not originate from the NEP that the DBM submitted and approved by the 19th Congress. As claimed by the petitioners themselves, Pangandaman noted, the additional allocations for the unprogrammed funds came from the bicam. Known as the so-called “third Congress,” the bicam passed upon the consolidated versions of the 2024 GAA.

Pangandaman also sought to allay concerns by the opposition leaders that as much as P12 billion in this year’s budget has been re-aligned to the Commission on Elections (Comelec). This amount would allegedly be used to bankroll the controversial people’s initiative to amend the country’s 1987 Constitution.

“It is not intended specifically or solely to fund the proposed Charter change,” the DBM chief said. However, she clarified, the Comelec can tap such funds as allowed by their Congress-approved budget for this year to use the additional funds to conduct preparations for the national and local elections, overseas absentee voting, continuing registration, recall, special elections, referenda and other mandated tasks of the poll body.

“They (Comelec) have the discretion to use the said amount for a plebiscite if the government decides to pursue any change or if the people’s initiative pushes through,” she admitted.

Repeatedly citing she is no lawyer, Pangandaman recalled her own experience in the congressional budget process she handled while still a legislative staff then of the late Senate president Edgardo Angara. With her own legislative background, she argued such increase in the unprogrammed funds in the annual GAA also took place in the past, not just in this year’s budget.

In short, it happened before, so what else is new?

As mentioned earlier, the DBM Secretary reiterated the “trigger points” as safeguards before any amounts in the unprogrammed funds can be released. And only upon certification by the National Treasurer that such available revenues can be drawn from the unprogrammed funds, she added.

“It (unprogrammed funds) is not automatically released unlike those other parts of the budget that we release on day one,” she pointed out. Thus, Pangandaman believes the questioned increase of unprogrammed funds could pass the constitutional tests.

“We welcome it (petition). That’s how democracy works. At the end of the day, we will be able to know (if it’s unconstitutional or not). But from our end at the DBM, we know it’s constitutional,” Pangandaman believed. “Maybe from their (lawmakers) end, there are still gray areas. The difference lies maybe in the opinion and interpretation. But we will provide whatever data and information when the right time comes,” she reassured the petitioners.

On a positive note for the unprogrammed allocations in the GAA, the Budget Secretary cited, was the release of P7.9 billion last year to the Department of Health. This enabled the national government to settle the unpaid health emergency allowances to thousands of government health workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A member of economic development group of Cabinet advisers, Pangandaman welcomed the newest appointments of PBBM such as Secretary Frederick Go as head of the Office of the Special Assistant to the President for Investment and Economic Affairs (OSAPIEA) and Finance Secretary Ralph Recto who vowed to raise P4.3 trillion in government revenues this year.

“We very much need the fund to be able to fund our national budget… ‘Pag mas malaki ang budget natin, baka mas maliit ang unprogrammed (funds) natin ‘di ba?” she quipped.

Obviously, the DBM chief conceded the questioned increase in the unprogrammed allocations came from various re-alignments of the NEP. As of today though, Pangandaman admitted the DBM is still in the process of reviewing the “spreadsheets” on the various line-item provisions to determine which government programs and projects got sacrificed by the re-alignments.

That’s the problem with multi-speaking lawmakers who, after everything that is said and done, still turn out to be nothing but plain noise.

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