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Budget hurdles House

Michelle R. Guillang

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Job well done Speaker Lord Allan Velasco passed his baptism of fire convincingly by spearheading the approval of the budget within the 4-day special session that President Rodrigo Duterte called after the rude interruption caused by his predecessor’s decision to call an early vacation for the chamber. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES

Hitting the schedule with hours to spare, the House of Representatives approved the P4.5-trillion national budget with 267 affirmative and six negative votes with zero abstention.

House Speaker Lord Allan Velasco attributed the swift passage of House bill 7727 or the 2021 General Appropriations Bill (GAB) to the guidance that President Rodrigo Duterte provided.

“Mr. Duterte took a principled decisive leadership so that the budget will get the complete attention it deserves. We present to you a budget for lives and livelihood. Ito ang tunay na budget ng bayan (This is truly the People’s Budget),” he explained.

Velasco also commended House members who stuck it out until early morning during the four-day special session that Mr. Duterte called to enact the measure. The President certified the bill as urgent.

The bill went through the second and third readings on the same day as a result of the President’s endorsement.

“Despite the differences in viewpoints we have proven to the Filipino people that we can actually work together and get things done,” Velasco stressed.

He added that as a body, “we recognize and uphold a common goal, which is the welfare of our country and the people and that we can set aside personal differences and be bound by shared and common goals.”

“I am proud of this General Appropriations Bill that we have passed on third reading today, which is truly reflective and responsive to the needs of our people. We have proven that playing by the rules, without resorting to shortcuts, and keeping our time-honored traditions and values, we can produce better and superior outputs,” according to Velasco.

He added: “I may not be an extraordinary congressman, but I am a humble recipient of your overwhelming mandate and support.”

Velasco urged his colleagues not to let their guard down saying “Our task over the budget does not end with its passage. We will have to make sure that the programs are properly implemented, that public funds as appropriated do not go to waste.”

Small committee takes over
A small committee was created to consolidate all the proposed amendments for the bill. The body is composed of Majority Leader Martin Romualdez, Senior Deputy Speaker Doy Leachon and House committee on appropriations chair Eric Yap.

To represent the majority in the small committee were Rizal Rep. Michael John Duavit, Bataan Rep. Jose Enrique “Joet” Garcia, Albay Rep. Joey Salceda, Batangas Rep. Eileen Ermita-Buhain, Camiguin Rep. Xavier Jesus Romualdo, Samar Rep. Edgar Sarmiento and Nueva Vizcaya Luisa Cuaresma.

Two partylist representatives, Bagong Henerasyon partylist Rep. Bernadette Herrera-Dy and AAMBIS-OWA partylist Rep. Sharon Garin, were also included.

House Assistant Minority Leader Stella Quimbo and Rep. Edcel Lagman filled in for the Independent opposition.

Individual amendments from the congressmen are to be submitted on 19 October to the small committee.

The motion to pass the GAB on second reading was moved following the period of Turno En Contra where Minority Leader Bienvenido Abante announced his decision to join the majority bloc after 15 months of leading it.

Only agency revisions allowed
No insertions or realignments will happen to the House edition of the 2021 General Appropriations Bill as only amendments from government agencies will be entertained from its approval up its delivery to the Senate.

The House appropriations committee said congressmen will be prohibited from touching the measure to soothe Senators apprehensions over maneuvers to introduce pork barrel of possibly delaying the tight budget schedule.

The powerful House panel committed to transmit copies of the approved 2021 General Appropriations Bill (GAB) on 28 October, earlier than the deadline set by former Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano of 5 November.

ACT-CIS partylist representative Eric Yap, the panel’s chairperson, said he cannot afford to let “his Speaker” down by not complying with the Senate’s request to submit the copies of the GAB on the designated date.

Marinduque Rep. Lord Allan Velasco was installed as Speaker in place of Cayetano in a vote.

“It will be on 28 October but it won’t be a hard copy. We will submit to them (Senate) what we have to send to the National Printing Office (NPO), which is the copy printed on the white paper only,” Yap said.

If the Senate would still complain regarding the transmittal date, Yap said there’s nothing he can do about it, blurting: “I would give up.”

Sotto: Not later than 30 Oct
Senate President Vicente Sotto III also reiterated an appeal to Velasco to submit the House version of the GAB on 30 October to ensure its timely passage.

In a text message, Sotto welcomed Velasco’s assurance of moving forward the timeline to allow early transmittal to the Senate.

“While we are glad at the earlier timetable they are giving, we are still hoping that my request to Speaker Velasco, last night, that we receive it before the 30th is given the chamber’s best effort because that will save the Senate at least many days of going home at 4 or 5 a.m. daily,” Sotto said.

Sotto explained they will start the plenary deliberations at 10 a.m. once the GAB is sponsored in the Senate plenary so that the deliberations will not continue until dawn.

“I’m not worried about the Senators. I’m worried about the Senate Secretariat, [Legislative Budget Research and Monitoring Office], and our staff. They almost have no sleep for weeks,” he said.

“Not to mention myself and other Senators who are physically present. We are never late nor never absent,” he added.

Budget needed for COVID war
Senator Christopher Lawrence “Bong” Go supported President Duterte’s plans for the purchase, allocation and further development of COVID-19 vaccines as he reiterated the need to pass the 2021 budget on time.

During an interview after the turnover of newly-acquired fire trucks and firefighting equipment at the Camp General Emilio Aguinaldo in Quezon City on 15 October, the chairperson of the Senate Committee on Health said the government had set aside funds for the purchase of the COVID-19 vaccine and is looking to secure additional funding to expand the immunization program.

He reiterated Mr. Duterte’s statements that poor and vulnerable sectors as well as medical frontliners and members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and Philippine National Police will get priority under the government’s plan to allocate COVID-19 vaccines once these become available.

Go urged fellow lawmakers in the House of Representatives to set aside politics and focus on the work to be done by passing on time a 2021 budget that is responsive to the needs of the Filipino people amid the pandemic.

“I am appealing to my fellow legislators. Let us pass the budget on time. We cannot afford to have a reenacted budget. As a senator, I am always ready to work,” he said.

Follow charter
Senator Panfilo Lacson, on the other hand, reminded House members of Article VI Section 26(2) of the 1987 Constitution that prohibits the introduction of amendments once a bill is approved on third and final reading.

“Are they planning to violate the Constitution, so that, while fulfilling their promise to the president to finally approve the measure on the last day of special session or today, they can still make insertions in the finally approved version of the budget measure?” Lacson asked.

Lacson explained that the budget calendar for the Senate will be tight should the House failed to submit the printed copies to the chamber immediately after its approval.

He also dismissed the possibility of the Senate adopting the GAB as passed by the House.

“The House leadership promised the President that they will pass on third reading the 2021 GAB and we have no reason to doubt that they will fulfill that commitment. Give or take, it takes one week to print, 5 November is far off from 16 October,” he said.

Before they take their congressional break, Sotto has manifested during the plenary session on Thursday afternoon that the House is planning to submit the budget on 5 November.

This schedule is the same date proposed by former Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano, Sotto pointed out.

“If that’s the case we’ll still be delayed. So, I think we should, any of us who will be able to get in touch with the leadership in the House, tell them that we need it before 30 October or at least next week, they can print it, if they pass it tomorrow, we can still make it within seven days,” Sotto said during the session.

Hours after the concern was raised in the Senate plenary, the Senate chief said he was assured by Velasco that the House will give its “best effort” on Sotto’s request to pass the budget measure on 28th October or 10 days after the anticipated House approval.

with Hananeel Bordey

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