THE bicameral conference committee for the P3.77-trillion national budget for 2018 met for the first time Thursday and lawmakers from both chambers disagreed immediately over some realignments, as others pushed for a “pork free” measure.
Present for the Senate were Finance Committee Chairman Loren Legarda, Senate President Pro-Tempore Ralph Recto, Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon and Senators Cynthia Villar, Juan Edgardo Angara, Panfilo Lacson, Joseph Victor Ejercito, Nancy Binay and Juan Miguel Zubiri.
In attendance for the House were: Davao City Rep. Karlo Nograles of the Committee on Appropriations; House Majority Leader and Ilocos Norte Rep. Rodolfo Farinas; Minority Leader and Quezon Rep. Danilo Suarez, Compostela Valley Rep. Maria Carmen Zamora, Malabon Rep. Federico Sandoval 2nd, Quirino Rep. Dakila Cua, Batangas Rep. Elenita Ermita-Buhain, Pampanga Rep. Juan Pablo Bondoc, Oriental Mindoro Rep. Reynaldo Umali and PBA party-list Rep. Mark Aeron Sambar.
The Senate approved its version of the 2018 General Appropriations Act (GAA) on Wednesday night while the House passed its “pork-free” version on September 26.
In Thursday’s meeting, the Senate presented its re-alignment of the P500 million budget for the Masa Masid program of the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG), and the Philippine National Police (PNP)’s P900 million budget for “Oplan Double Barrel” to the housing program for the military and policemen, as well as the purchase of body cameras for police.
Ejercito said the Senate placed the P900 million “Oplan Double Barrel” budget under the Maintenance and Other Operating Expenses (MOOE) to “avoid controversy.”
Lacson also said that the biggest re-alignment made by the Senate was in the original P639 billion budget of the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), from which it took P50.7 billion and spread it to the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA), the “chalk” allowance of teachers, to the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) for the National ID system, and to the government’s feeding programs.
The House version approved the P639 billion DPWH budget despite “right-of-way” (ROW) issues.
Justifying the realignment in the DPWH budget, Lacson said: “The DPWH told us that the right-of-way issues have yet to be resolved and taking off from the manifestation of Sen. [Cynthia] Villar herself during the plenary debates on the budget of the DPWH, she said that she has an experience that the civil works cannot be implemented until the issue on the ROW is resolved. Why? Because if you cannot settle on the path of the road you will work on, how can you establish the road?” Lacson said in Filipino.
Nograles complained about the drastic changes in the 2018 budget two weeks before Congress was set to send the measure to President Duterte for approval.
“This was defended by the DPWH because these are the needed projects, this is included in the infrastructure spending program of the Executive [branch of the Government],” Nograles said.
“We finished this very early as far as the House of Representatives is concerned. We submitted it to them [Senate], the House version and it took them how many months, weeks for them to finish their version of the budget,” Nograles said.
“And now suddenly, they will finish their version of the budget near the end of the year and they will give this to us with a lot of adjustments and expect us to adapt to these adjustments just like that? It will not be easy.”
Nograles said Congress was looking at sending the budget to the President before its break on December 12.
Malacañang set the deadline for the signing of the 2018 GAA on December 19.
Drilon sought justification on the increases and reductions in the allocations for some government agencies under the Senate version.
He said that in view of the concerns of the public regarding the alleged “pork” in the budget, “it is best to shed some light into the budget.”
Drilon said he noticed that the 2018 budget of some agencies increased substantially in the Senate version, while the others “suffered deep budget cuts.”
Drilon said he wanted to know why the DILG, where the PNP budget is lodged, got a substantial addition of P1.65 billion, as well as the Bureau of Customs, whose budget was increased by P1.49 billion.
The PDEA, which was recently tasked to implement the administration’s war on drugs, has been lined up to receive an additional P1.21 billion in its budget.
In contrast, some key agencies “suffered a deep budget cuts” like the P1.84-billion decrease in the Department of Environment and Natural Resources budget.
Drilon also noted that there were items in the budget that were decreased by billions of pesos in the Senate version.
These include the Pension and Gratuity Fund, whose proposed budget under the Senate version was decreased by P17.08 billion, as well as the National Disaster Risk Reduction Fund, (P8.1 billion decrease) and the Miscellaneous Personnel Beneﬁts Fund (P4.66 billion).
Budget for OFWs
Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello 3rd dropped by the bicameral conference committee hearing as he sought a P1.1- billion increase in his agency’s 2018 budget to be used for the reintegration and repatriation expenses of around 240,000 overseas Filipino workers (OFW) in Qatar, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia.
Bello said the increase in the budget was part of the contingency plan of the government to fly Filipino workers from the Middle East back to the country when the situation there worsens.
Bello said P850 million would be used for repatriation expenses while P200 million to P300 million would be for reintegration of the OFWs back home.
WITH BERNADETTE E. TAMAYO AND CATHERINE S. VALENTE