Philippine Daily Inquirer - - FRONT PAGE - STORY BY JULIE M. AURE­LIO

House lead­ers are no longer wor­ried about sub­mit­ting the na­tional bud­get to the Senate on time. What trou­bles them now are the many re­quests from agen­cies for ad­di­tional funds. The Depart­ment of Health (DOH) is ask­ing for the big­gest amount—p17 bil­lion—most of it to meet an im­mu­niza­tion target of 20 mil­lion once a vac­cine for the coro­n­avirus be­comes avail­able.

Lead­ers of the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives as­sured the Pres­i­dent and the sen­a­tors on Satur­day that they would sub­mit the P4.5-tril­lion na­tional bud­get for 2021 to the Senate on time but in­di­cated that the big­ger prob­lem was the lack of ad­di­tional fund­ing that some agen­cies like the Depart­ment of Health (DOH) are seek­ing.

Mala­cañang on Satur­day pushed the House to sub­mit the bud­get by Oct. 28 to the Senate to give sen­a­tors “am­ple time” to go through it and for Congress to ap­prove it early enough for the Pres­i­dent’s sig­na­ture.

“The Chief Ex­ec­u­tive has in many oc­ca­sions ar­tic­u­lated the im­por­tance of the timely pas­sage of the bud­get, given that we are in the mid­dle of the COVID-19 pan­demic where we need re­sources to fund gov­ern­ment in­ter­ven­tions to mit­i­gate the ad­verse ef­fects of the virus,” pres­i­den­tial spokesper­son Harry Roque said in a state­ment.

In a phone in­ter­view on Satur­day, ACT-CIS Rep. Eric Yap, the House ap­pro­pri­a­tions com­mit­tee chair, as­sured the Palace that the Senate would re­ceive the “soft copy” of House Bill No. 7727, or the Gen­eral Ap­pro­pri­a­tions Bill (GAB), on Oct. 28.

“The Oct. 28 date is fine, it’s still safe,” Yap said.

Depart­ment al­lo­ca­tions

He said Speaker Lord Al­lan Ve­lasco had al­ready in­formed Senate Pres­i­dent Vi­cente Sotto III that the House would make a “best ef­fort” to meet the Senate’s re­quest to get hold of the bud­get bill by the end of the month.

Yap said that “by hook or by crook” the Senate will get it on the promised date.

Thep4.506-tril­lion “Re­bound, Re­set and Re­cover” bud­get gave the big­gest al­lo­ca­tions to the fol­low­ing de­part­ments: Ed­u­ca­tion, P754.4 bil­lion; Pub­lic Works and High­ways, P667.3 bil­lion; In­te­rior and Lo­cal Gov­ern­ment, P246.1 bil­lion; Na­tional De­fense, P209.1 bil­lion; Health, P203.1 bil­lion; So­cial Wel­fare and Devel­op­ment, P171.2 bil­lion; Trans­porta­tion, P143.6 bil­lion; Agricultur­e, P66.4 bil­lion; and La­bor and Em­ploy­ment, P27.5 bil­lion. The ju­di­ciary will get P43.5 bil­lion.

A “small com­mit­tee” com­prised of Yap, House Ma­jor­ity Leader Martin Ro­mualdez, House Se­nior Deputy Speaker Doy Lea­chon and 11 other rep­re­sen­ta­tives were tasked with re­ceiv­ing agency-ini­ti­ated amend­ments un­til Oct. 19.

Yap stressed that House mem­bers could no longer sub­mit amend­ments to this com­mit­tee.

“It’s a bit an­noy­ing if you see in the news that the de­lays are be­cause con­gress­men will insert their own projects. They can check it. Con­gress­men can no longer do that,” he said.

The re­view of the amend­ments is ex­pected to be com­pleted by Tues­day. The en­cod­ing is ex­pected to be done by Oct. 28, the date that the House will trans­mit the the copy of the GAB to the Senate, Yap said.

More se­ri­ous con­cern

The print­ing of the bud­get bill will take an­other 10 days at the Na­tional Print­ing Of­fice, Yap said.

Some of the amend­ments were mere cor­rec­tions of spelling and cler­i­cal er­rors, or changes, he said.

But what was more se­ri­ous than th­ese were amend­ments in the form of re­quests from var­i­ous agen­cies for ad­di­tional fund­ing, ac­cord­ing to Ve­lasco, who spoke with re­porters shortly af­ter the House ap­proved the bud­get on Fri­day night.

“We will try to look for other funds which we can use there in health, ed­u­ca­tion, es­pe­cially in ICT (in­for­ma­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­nol­ogy) where we need im­prove­ment in our broad­band net­work for our stu­dents’ ed­u­ca­tion,” he said.

Ve­lasco also cited the need for ad­di­tional Air Force he­li­copters, which could be used for de­liv­er­ing aid and goods to the prov­inces dur­ing the pan­demic.

Ac­cord­ing to Yap, the health depart­ment is ask­ing for the largest amount of ad­di­tional funds— P17 bil­lion.

“It’s not just for the (COVID-19) vac­cines but for other valid items. The prob­lem is where will we get the funds? So that’s what we will be study­ing in their amend­ment,” Yap said.

Dur­ing the bud­get de­lib­er­a­tions, law­mak­ers crit­i­cized the allocation of P2.5-bil­lion fund­ing for COVID-19 vac­cines, say­ing it was in­ad­e­quate to im­mu­nize at least 20 mil­lion Filipinos as ordered by the Pres­i­dent.

“So many agen­cies wrote us, ask­ing for ad­di­tional funds,” Yap said. “The DOH is ask­ing for P17 bil­lion more. So where will we get that? We won’t be top­ping up this amount, it will still come from that (ap­proved amount of P4.5 tril­lion).”

He said al­most all de­part­ments had their fund­ing slashed and he did not want to give “false hopes” to those ask­ing for ad­di­tional funds.

Marik­ina City Rep. Stella Quimbo, a mi­nor­ity law­maker who is a mem­ber of the com­mit­tee, noted that DOH needed at least P12 bil­lion to vac­ci­nate 20 mil­lion poor Filipinos at a cost of P691 per dose.

“The prob­lem is, the bud­get has a fixed amount. So even if you want to add to it, it should still sum up to P 4.506 tril­lion … That will be the job of the small com­mit­tee.

There should be clear pa­ram­e­ters as to where to add and where to cut back,” Quimbo said in an in­ter­view with ABS-CBN’S “Tel­er­adyo.”

Agu­san Rep. Lawrence For­tun said the bud­get bill ap­proved by the House was not per­fect but its pas­sage averted a pos­si­ble reen­acted bud­get next year.

“There is still a chance to ad­dress the is­sues, such as the sub­stan­tial de­fi­cien­cies in the DOH bud­get for COVID-19 re­sponse, the con­sid­er­able in­ad­e­quacy of the Deped’s bud­get for self-learn­ing mod­ules and the hefty cut in the ap­pro­pri­a­tions for the DSWD, to men­tion some,” he said in a state­ment.

“The small com­mit­tee, and later, the bi­cam­eral con­fer­ence com­mit­tee should ad­dress th­ese crit­i­cal con­cerns,” For­tun said.

Ve­lasco told re­porters on Fri­day night that the House had ap­proved a “con­sti­tu­tional bud­get” with “no pork.”

Il­le­gal in­ser­tions

But de­spite as­sur­ances of a pork-free bud­get that would be sub­mit­ted on time, Senate Mi­nor­ity Leader Franklin Drilon on Satur­day be­lieved that there were still il­le­gal in­ser­tions which he vowed to ques­tion.

In a radio in­ter­view, Drilon said the Senate was fac­ing a “more daunt­ing task” of scru­ti­niz­ing the 2021 GAB amid sus­pi­cion that the House had in­serted fund­ing items to ac­com­mo­date “re­quests” from its mem­bers.

“What trig­gered the chaos in the House lead­er­ship was the un­even al­lo­ca­tions in the leg­isla­tive dis­tricts, so it fol­lows that they will try to scat­ter the bulging of funds among mem­bers. The Senate will now have to check which item is cor­rect or re­dun­dant,” he said.

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