Senate kicks off 2021 budget debates

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    THE Senate kicks off today its floor deliberations on the proposed P4.506-trillion national budget for 2021 as senators move appropriations around to make the 2021 General Appropriations Bill (GAB) more responsive to the COVID-19 health emergency still affecting the country.

    Sen. Juan Edgardo Angara, chairman of the Senate finance committee, said the chamber will tackle the general principles, which will be followed with the scheduled deliberations on the individual budgets of the various government departments and agencies.

    Angara said the proposed budget consists of P3.236 trillion in new appropriations and P1.419 trillion in automatic appropriations, which will go to salaries for government employees and for capital outlay.

    He said the 2021 proposed budget will have the following priorities: strengthening of the country’s health system amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which will include enhancing the capabilities of hospitals nationwide especially those in the provinces; addressing the demands of the educational system under the new normal, with emphasis on improving internet services; ensuring the government’s ability to respond to calamities by increasing calamity funds; and ensuring social welfare benefits for those badly affected by the pandemic.

    “The proposals of some senators to increase the calamity fund are well taken and will be addressed. From P16 billion this year, the Senate is looking at increasing this by another P5 billion at least. But the source of funds will have to be from other items of the budget and not the NTF-ELCAC (National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict),” Angara said.

    “The funding for the NTF-ELCAC will be retained. This has been declared as a priority program of the executive branch as part of the efforts to address the insurgencies,” he added.

    Based on records, the government’s calamity funds have been slashed through the years.

    In 2017, it was reduced to P15.8 billion from the previous year’s appropriation of P38.9 billion. From P20 billion in 2019, it was cut to P16 billion in 2020.

    Angara said P10 billion has also been introduced to the budget measure as “unprogrammed funds” for the purchase of COVID-19 vaccines. This is on top of the P2.5 billion included in the National Expenditure Program and P5.5 billion introduced by the House of Representatives for the same purpose.

    Angara said senators intend to slash funding for items which are not essential to COVID-19 response, like the construction of new buildings, and pour them for use against the pandemic.

    He assured that vague appropriations or “pork barrel” funds will not be allowed under the proposed budget.

    Angara said they intend to pass the budget measure on third and final reading on November 24, and immediately convene the bicameral conference committee so that a consolidated version of the bill will be available by December 7.

    By mid-December, Angara said the final version of the GAB will hopefully be transmitted to Malacañang for the President’s review and signing.

    “Though 2020 has found us neck-deep in crisis, the 2021 budget we are proposing is our primary way of pulling ourselves out. This is a path out of this pandemic. It is a path towards the bright future we are all working for,” Angara said.

    Despite claiming that the House of Representatives will not be a rubberstamp of the Executive under his leadership, Speaker Lord Allan Velasco admitted yesterday that he is “greatly indebted” to President Duterte who administered his oath of office in a private ceremony at Malacañang last Monday night.

    Velasco, in a statement, once again thanked the President “for all his help in making sure the speakership term-sharing agreement he brokered last year would be followed.”

    “I am deeply honored to be sworn in by President Duterte who I admire a lot and have high regard for. He is also one of the persons to whom I am greatly indebted,” said Velasco, the first Speaker to be sworn in by the President in modern Philippine history.

    The oath-taking happened on the same day Velasco celebrated his 43rd birthday and almost one month after he was elected Speaker by a majority of congressmen.

    Velasco first took his oath before barangay captain Allan Franza of Matandang Balara, Quezon City, shortly after his election as Speaker in a session held at the Celebrity Sports Plaza in Quezon City last Oct. 12. More than 200 House members ratified his election at the plenary hall of the Batasan Pambansa the following day, formalizing his assumption of the House leadership.

    Velasco earlier said the House will not be a rubberstamp of the Executive despite his closeness to the President and his daughter because the House remains a deliberative body that makes collegiate decisions. – With Wendell Vigilia