“IS this an election campaign budget?”
Sen. Panfilo Lacson yesterday said this was the likely explanation to the sizable realignments and insertions made in the recently-ratified P4.506-trillion General Appropriations Bill (GAB) for 2021, which he said allowed the juggling of funds and an increase in the allocation for infrastructure projects of the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH).
Lacson, who has been keeping a close watch on the DPWH budget due to alleged irregularities in its road projects, said the increase in the department’s appropriation could also be in preparation for the 2022 elections.
“It begs the question: Is this an election campaign budget?” Lacson asked.
The senator had sought to slash the DPWH budget by P60 billion, citing its low disbursement rate, on top of its double appropriations, overlapping and unfinished projects, and its failure to settle road-right-of way programs.
Lacson noted that instead of slashing the cutting the department’s P666.5 billion proposed budget under the National Expenditure Program, the bicameral conference committee that reconciled the Senate and House of Representatives’ differing versions even hiked the agency’s appropriation by P28.3 billion.
The DPWH proposed budget in the ratified GAB was set at P694.8 billion.
“Even the multi-purpose buildings that I had repeatedly questioned in the committee hearings all the way to plenary gained more funds instead of being reduced, in spite of the obvious waste of funds due to the failure of the DPWH to implement them,” he said.
He said the P60 billion could have been realigned to government programs related to COVID response, economic recovery due to the pandemic, and rehabilitation of communities destroyed by the recent typhoons.
The DPWH’s proposed budget is much bigger than the health sector, which has P287.47 billion, considering that the government needs more funds amid the continued threat of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.
Lacson said this is the reason why he voted against the ratification of the bicameral budget report last Wednesday.
“For the record, I am not questioning the collegial nature of our plenary deliberations. But I cannot give my vote to a measure as important as the national budget without having read the details of the said bicameral conference report. All that being said, what happened is now water under the bridge. But it is high time we learn our lessons from this,” he said.
REALIGNMENT MEANS DELAY
Sen. Juan Edgardo Angara, chairman of the Senate finance committee, on Wednesday night said the bicameral panel had to carry over from the 2020 budget more than P135-billion worth of DPWH infrastructure projects to the 2021 budget since the agency had to catch up on its programs which were not implemented this year due to the lockdowns imposed to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Angara said the national government used P200 billion of DPWH’s 2020 allocation to fund its pandemic response measures.
In an interview with ANC on Thursday, Angara said realigning billions of pesos worth of infra projects in various congressional districts will delay the timely passage of the proposed national budget.
“But again, you take away those projects from certain congressman’s district, you’re going to have a problem and that’s not going to allow you to pass the budget by yearend…
There’s always compromise in any budget. Otherwise, you would never get your budget passed if you don’t want to give and take a little bit,” Angara said.
He said that congressmen are inclined to assert funding for projects requested by their constituents like roads, classrooms, and multi-purpose buildings.
“You talk to any congressman and they will tell you hinihingan sila (they are asked of projects) sa (in their) districts. So, I think those are the requirements of the job partly… When you are up for re-election in three years, your constituents will ask you, ‘Did you bring home the bacon to our area, to our district?’ So ‘yan ang usapan diyan, di maiwasan ‘yan taun-taon (So, that’s the issue being brought out every year),” he added.
But still, Angara said he shares Lacson’s position that the DPWH should stop seeking funds for projects that have “no good public purpose” but added that some of them, such as gymnasiums, are important to their constituents.
INFRA VS HEALTH, ECONOMY
Sen. Francis Pangilinan said the budget for public works is much bigger than the health and economic stimulus packages meant to address the impacts of the pandemic.
“The budget for health, livelihood support, Tulong Panghanapbuhay sa Ating Disadvantaged (TUPAD) and Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps) are insufficient and pale in comparison to infrastructure. Health and economic stimulus should have been given more funding over infrastructure and security,” Pangilinan said.
TUPAD program is under the Department of Labor and Employment, but the department was only appropriated a total of P36.6 billion in the bicameral report.
The 4Ps program is under the Department of Social Welfare and Development which got a total appropriation of P176.65 billion.
Even administration ally Sen. Joel Villanueva, chairman of the Senate committee on higher education, expressed concern over the P250-million budget reduction in the Commission on Higher Education for its medical scholarship program under the “Doktor Para sa Bayan Act.”
He said that under the Senate version of the budget measure, the program was appropriated P1.15 billion but was surprised that only P802 million was approved after the bicameral discussions.
“I know it’s not just the decision of the Senate or the chair, but I just want to put that on record because if you can recall, Mr. President, when we were discussing the Doktor Para sa Bayan measure that we passed, we were talking and envisioning that by next year, we will be able to double the number of medical scholars,” Villanueva said.
Meanwhile, the House of Representatives on Wednesday night approved on second reading the bill extending the validity of this year’s P4.1 trillion budget until December 31, 2021 after the implementation of many programs and projects were delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“In this regard, it is imperative that Section 60 of the General Provisions of Republic Act 11465 be amended such that the validity if all appropriations therein be extended for another fiscal year for the benefit of the people and the welfare of the nation,” said House Bill No. 6656.
ACT-CIS party-list Rep. Eric Yap, chair of the House committee on appropriation, said the extension is in line with the economic stimulus efforts of the government. – With Wendell Vigilia