Solons engage in ‘pork’ battle over 2020 budget

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    IT’S all about money.

    DAVAO City Rep. Isidro Ungab alleged yesterday that the move to withdraw the House committee on appropriation’s filing of the General Appropriations Bill (GAB) for 2020 smacks of an attempt to open the P4.1 trillion proposed national budget to congressional insertions.

    “I am afraid that a new General Appropriations Bill will open the floodgates of insertions,” Ungab told reporters as he accused deputy speaker for finance Luis Raymond “LRay” Villafuerte of allegedly “meddling” in the budgetary process.

    “He (Villafuerte) instructed the appropriations staff that the bill will be amended which I think is wrong,” Ungab said. “That’s really an insertion if they will change the GAB.”

    Ungab last Wednesday asked the appropriations committee secretariat to file House Bill No. 4228, or the GAB which is the committee’s version of the National Expenditure Program (NEP) submitted by Malacañang, for first reading in the plenary while his panel is still conducting budget hearings.

    Villafuerte moved to have the referral of the bill to the appropriations committee withdrawn and had it referred to the committee on rules on the ground that its filing on first reading was “premature” considering that all departments and other agencies of the government have yet to finish presenting their respective budget proposals.

    Ungab said Villafuerte had HB 4228 withdrawn because he supposedly intends to change the bill, which he insisted was a faithful reproduction of Malacañang’s NEP.

    Villafuerte got back at Ungab and said that while he respects his colleague’s position, he will stick to his stand that that budgeting process should not be unnecessarily fast-tracked.

    “He (Ungab) is following a schedule and he doesn’t want it to be disrupted but for me, my opinion is we should follow the process. We have to listen to the other congressmen,” he said.

    Villafuerte reiterated there was no need for the House to shortcut the legislative process on the excuse that it has to pass the GAB soon enough to avoid a repeat of the 2019 budget delay which was caused by allegations of congressional insertions.

    Villafuerte said congressional “insertions” cannot be done yet at the current phase of the budgeting process but warned this can take place once a consolidated version of the GAB is approved.

    “There is no approved GAB yet, so there is no such thing as congressional insertions at this stage,” he said. “Congressional insertions are budgetary amendments that certain lawmakers insert on the sly after a consolidated GAB has already been passed by both chambers – a post-ratification process that the Supreme Court had struck down and which certain House leaders resorted to in the 17th Congress and that led to the delay in the approval of the 2019 budget.”

    “Certainly, the premature filing of HB 4228 goes against the very commitment of the House leadership to tackle the 2020 GAB – and all other legislative measures for that matter – in timely fashion and with full transparency from the committee to the plenary stages. And besides, we have the whole of September and most of October to take up the national budget bill, so there is no need for us to act on it with undue haste,” Villafuerte said.

    Ungab insisted that the bill cannot be considered prematurely filed because “we cannot conduct budget hearings without a bill filed for first reading, with the budget bill being a replica of the NEP.

    “Hence, all our meetings are called briefings, which will be converted into hearings once we conduct an executive meeting on the budget. GAB has always followed the NEP. That is the established procedure,” he said.

    Should there be amendments to be made based on the budget briefings, Ungab said the panel may include it in the committee report to be filed before the floor deliberations.

    “Since we are about to finish the briefings by this week, it is just proper to file the bill and have it printed. We want to have the budget approved on second and third reading before we go on recess by October 5,” he said.

    “This is the practice that the House been doing for so long to ensure transparency and participation in the budget hearings,” Ungab said.

    Sources said Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano berated Ungab in a meeting where congressmen discussed the issues hounding the budget deliberations.

    In a statement, however, Cayetano said congressmen were able to sort out the procedural issues that caused friction between Ungab and Villafuerte in a meeting that he presided yesterday afternoon.

    “Lawmakers threshed out any misunderstandings and confusion that have arisen during the budget deliberations,” Cayetano said in a statement. “We assure the public that budget will be scrutinized but will not be delayed and will be transparent.”

    The Speaker, who has vowed to ensure an equitable distribution of congressional allocations, said “pork” and “(fund) parking” have no place in the 2020 budget.

    “The House will ensure the passage of a national budget that is constitutional, legal, transparent and accountable,” Cayetano said.

    Cayetano said he has requested all departments and agencies to submit the written presentations of their respective budget proposals before 5 p.m. today.

    Thereafter, the rules committee will refer the 2020 GAB to the committee on appropriations for its consideration.

    “The House leadership, as originally scheduled, commits to approve the 2020 GAB before Congress goes on recess on the first week of October,” he said.

    UNHAPPY SOLONS?

    Villafuerte claimed yesterday that many congressmen are unhappy with the allocations that their districts received under Malacañang’s P4.1 trillion proposed national budget for 2020.

    “There are some districts, as per discussions, where the funds should have been equitably distributed. There are some (congressmen), they know that some (districts) have huge allocations while others have small but that’s subject for discussion. It doesn’t mean that there are complaints, (but) there are amendments,” Villafuerte told reporters.

    The NEP, which contains the proposed budget for the following year, is submitted to Congress after it is approved by the President.

    More than 60 lawmakers are reportedly dissatisfied with their congressional allocations and they want to discuss their issues with the concerned agencies, according to Villafuerte.

    “We (House leadership) want the agencies to talk to them to have it threshed out so we can pass the budget on time,” Villafuerte said.

    PING’S TARGET

    Albay Rep. Joey Salceda, chair of the committee on ways and means, has warned Ungab that Sen. Panfilo Lacson may use the controversy to again accuse congressmen of engaging in the allocation of “pork” barrel funds despite the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling outlawing the practice.

    “It will not only derail, it will be the target of Ping Lacson,” said Salceda, a former chair of the appropriations panel, himself.

    In a letter that Ungab sent to Villafuerte’s office yesterday, the veteran lawmaker said he was writing to “formally relay my objection to the withdrawal of House Bill 4228.”

    The appropriations chair said his proposal to withdraw and amend the GAB “will definitely derail the schedule and approval of the budget.”

    “The staff are now all busy preparing for the plenary and pre-plenary deliberations, gathering data and reports requested by members of the House related to the budget. To prepare another set of General Appropriations Bill will require enormous time, efforts and resources that will surely affect or delay the passage of the 2020 Budget,” he said.

    Needless to say, Ungab said any alteration of the NEP “will surely raise doubts on our proceedings and the House will be questioned on why it will alter the proposed budget prepared by the Executive Department.”

    Cayetano, majority leader Martin Romualdez and deputy speaker Neptali Gonzales II were all furnished copies of the letter.

    Ungab also rejected the call of the left-leaning Makabayan bloc to suspend the budget deliberations, saying his panel will proceed with the budget briefings as scheduled until Friday.

    Bayan Muna party-list Rep, Carlos Zarate earlier called for the suspension of the budget deliberations, saying the issue surrounding it “is quite alarming, even disturbing.”

    “It smells like the greasy patronage ‘pork’ is being put into the oven. In light of this we are calling for a suspension of the budget deliberations until the 2020 GAB, as originally based from the NEP submitted by Malacañang is refiled,” said the Davao-based solon.

    ANOTHER SPEAKERSHIP FIGHT?

    Bayan Muna Rep. Ferdinand Gaite today said the “brouhaha” involving the GAB may be a result of the last speakership fight in the House of Representatives because Villafuerte is a trusted ally of the Cayetano while Ungab is known for his closeness to presidential son deputy speaker Paolo Duterte and his sister Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio.

    “As can be seen, Rep. LRay Villafuerte is associated with Speaker Allan Peter Cayetano while House Appropriations Committee chairman Rep. Isidro Ungab is associated with Rep. Paolo Duterte and Mayor Sarah Duterte and this intramurals on the 2020 budget is a manifestation of the fight between their principals,” Gaite said.

    The younger Duterte, who had been eyeing the speakership post before the opening of the 18th Congress last July, had made it clear that he is against the term-sharing agreement between Cayetano and Marinduque Rep. Lord Alan Velasco even if it was his father, President Duterte, who brokered the deal.

    Cayetano reportedly belongs to the power bloc of former presidential assistant and now Senator Christopher Go.

    Gaite said the House leadership’s appointment of more than 20 deputy speakers “is also a manifestation of this fight.”

    “Another factor to be considered here is that the different conflicting ruling factions in Congress now have their own priorities and pet initiatives, so the issue of allotting or inserting pork is always an issue in the national budget,” added the progressive solon.

    “We hope that the budget impasse would be settled with the Filipino people’s interest that is upheld and not the pork of a few politicians,” added Gaite.