2021 budget ready before Xmas Day: Sotto

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    THE proposed P4.5-trillion national budget for 2021 may be signed by President Duterte before Christmas Day, Senate President Vicente Sotto III yesterday said even as he assured the public that senators will not soft pedal on their scrutiny of the proposed multi-billion peso appropriation of the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH).

    Sotto said that “barring unforeseen circumstances,” the General Appropriations Bill (GAB) can be approved by the bicameral conference committee by December 8 and can be transmitted to Malacañang after printing, which usually takes around one week.

    Sotto said the “early” transmittal of the budget bill by the House of Representatives will give senators time to closely review the measure before they resume their regular sessions on November 9, or one week earlier than their scheduled resumption under the legislative calendar of Congress.

    The House of Representatives transmitted their version of the 2021 GAB on Tuesday afternoon, a day earlier than their October 28 deadline. The House version included P20 billion worth of institutional amendments which congressmen said added more funds to the health sector and other sectors affected by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

    While the Senate normally gets the GAB during the first week of October, Sotto said senators are pleased with Tuesday’s submission, as the speakership fight between Speaker Lord Allan Velasco and Taguig-Pateros Rep. Alan Peter Cayetano almost put a break on the House deliberations on the money measure.

    A day after the Senate resumes sessions on November 9, Senate finance committee chairman Sen. Juan Edgardo Angara will sponsor the budget bill on the floor, after which the period of floor deliberations will be opened until November 17 from 9 a.m. to 1 a.m. the following day.

    Sotto said senators will have to work double time since they have to tackle and discuss the proposed budgets of 27 departments and more than 100 agencies.

    The period of amendments is expected to be done by November 24. The measure can be approved on second and third reading on the same day.

    “If (this time table is followed), it will take seven days of printing (and then the) signing of the enrolled bill by congressional leaders. So, before Christmas we expect the President to sign it or at the very least before the end of the year,” Sotto said.

    At the same time, Sotto assured the public that senators will not soft pedal on their scrutiny of the proposed P667-billion budget of the DPWH even if Sen. Cynthia Villar, mother of Secretary Mark Villar, is present during the plenary discussions.

    Sotto said Sen. Villar has been known to just allow her colleagues to “grill” her son just as she has always done during the past interpellations of the DPWH budget.

    “I’ve seen it in the past. There were many interpellations on the DPWH budget but she never stops us, she does not pick up a fight with her colleagues,” Sotto said.

    Sotto said any lump sum appropriations in the proposed budget of any department will be slashed and the funds realigned to other worthwhile projects, as he reminded lawmakers that they cannot introduce an increase in overall amount of the proposed budget but can shave off a portion of a budget to pour it to another.

    Sotto also said that 65 percent of the proposed budget will automatically go to payment of salaries of government employees, while a portion of the remaining 35 percent goes will go to debt servicing, leaving them Congress with only around 15 to 20 percent that to fill up important government projects.