SEN. Panfilo “Ping” Lacson yesterday questioned the decision of the bicameral conference committee on the proposed 2021 national budget to create a “Committee of Two” to discuss and settle the differences in the budget measure versions of the Senate and the House of Representatives.
Lacson said allowing Sen. Juan Edgardo Angara, chairman of the Senate committee on finance, and Rep. Eric Yap, chairman of the House committee on appropriations, to handle the discussions lacks transparency.
“I don’t agree on anything that is not transparent, especially if it concerns the national budget. While the bicameral conference committee may have been reduced to a ‘Committee of Two,’ it is not exactly the case,” Lacson said.
Angara and Yap did not respond to requests for comments.
He said he asked his staff members to coordinate closely with the Senate’s Legislative Budget Research and Monitoring Office (LBRMO) so he can see the movements of appropriations before the final budget bill is presented to the members of the bicameral panel for their approval and signatures.
“Also, I practically demanded that I be furnished with a copy of the details of the Senate version before the convening of the bicameral conference, as what we had until yesterday (Tuesday) morning was only the summary of the Senate version,” Lacson said.
Representatives from both Senate and House of Representatives had their first meeting on Tuesday to reconcile the differences in the respective version of the budget measure separately approved by the two chambers.
The meeting lasted for only a few minutes and was immediately adjourned after it was decided that Angara and Yap be allowed to unify the differing appropriations in the General Appropriations Bill (GAB). The panel’s next meeting has yet to be announced.
Lacson said after an initial review of the Senate version of the GAB, he said his office has already found questionable appropriations.
“Having said all that, we already found some realignments that may seem questionable based on our preliminary examination. For instance, while some of my recommended slash from the Department of Public Works and Highways’ budget was adopted, we also noticed at least P10 billion worth of infrastructure projects realigned within the same agency under the Senate version,” he added.
Lacson was referring to the P31 billion deducted from the DPWH budget in the Senate version of the GAB, but “there was P10 billion added to it afterwards.”
Lacson said it is important that the bicameral panel be transparent so that its members can track the changes in the appropriations. This, he said, would show to the public why the Department of Budget and Management should not indiscriminately withhold funding for congressional initiatives – especially institutional amendments – by tagging them “For Later Release.”
“While we can identify the locations of the Senate-realigned projects, we may not be able to identify the senator-proponents. This is the reason why I have always called for transparency in all our individual amendments by posting the same on our official websites for the media and the public to see. As I already stated, these are very preliminary even as we continue our scrutiny of the budget measure. Thus, the importance of transparency cannot be emphasized enough,” he said.
Lacson was not able to attend the first day of the bicameral panel meeting because he attended the hearing on the issue of the government indiscriminately tagging groups as communists.
Sen. Risa Hontiveros said this is not the first time that the bicameral panel was allowed to have a “small bicam” to reconcile the differences in the budget bill’s versions as members have been assured that they can oppose the revisions, if so needed, before the final version is approved.
In a statement issued last Saturday, Lacson renewed his call to his colleagues for full transparency which he said is crucial to dispel suspicions of “compromise and personal interests in our proposed amendments.”
“If we have nothing to hide, we have to make our amendments public, as I have done in many cases. So these amendments can be scrutinized (not only) by the media, (but) as well as the public. It is the mandate of Congress to make amendments to the budget bill, we cannot just adopt the National Expenditure Program in toto,” Lacson said.
Lacson has proposed a P60-billion cut in the DPWH budget due to issues on double appropriations, overlapping, and failure of the department to settle road right-of-way payments, among others.
The P60-billion cut in the DPWH budget is part of the P63-billion budget (P60-B from DPWH, P500 million from the National Irrigation Administration, and the rest from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources) he wants to be realigned to COVID-19 response related projects and rehab efforts to communities destroyed by the recent typhoons.