2019News

Palace awaits budget bill as Senate, House trade fire

By Jovee Marie N. dela Cruz, Butch Fernandez and Bernadette D. Nicolas, March 12 2019; Business Mirror

https://businessmirror.com.ph/2019/03/12/palace-awaits-budget-bill-as-senate-house-trade-fire/

Image Credit to Manila Bulletin

THE House of Representatives on Monday sent to the Senate the final printed version of the P3.757-trillion budget bill for 2019, in hopes of ending a standoff arising from claims that the bicameral conference committee report reconciling the two chambers’versions was “manipulated” even after it was ratified on February 8.

House Appropriations committee chairman Rep. Rolando Andaya Jr. held out hope the budget bill will be signed by Senate President Vicente Sotto III so it can be submitted to the Palace for President Duterte’s signature.

In a news conference on Monday, Andaya said if the Senate refuses to sign the budget, “then we won’t have the law.” This means the 2018 reenacted budget will remain in force at least until end-July, when a new Congress is in place and a new leadership takes over the House.

In spelling out that scenario on Sunday, Sen. Panfilo Lacson, the most vocal in denouncing alleged “manipulation” by the House leadership of the post-ratification budget version, had shared with media initial estimates he claimed were given by the Finance department. These indicated daily losses to the economy of P500 million, and a 1.5-percentage point reduction in GDP growth, if the nation has to live with the reenacted budget until August.

“I’m still hopeful that there will be a change of heart in the Senate,” Andaya said.

Duterte: I won’t sign illegal document

Duterte signaled, however, that he would rather pay the economic price of extending the reenacted 2018 budget than sign a budget law that will be subject to legal challenge.

Duterte also said the budget is still under debate.

He lamented the possible decline in the country’s GDP growth if the 2019 budget would be further delayed, and acknowledged all sectors will be hurt.

“I will not sign anything that would be an illegal document. Magkaroon tayo ng slide sa GDP niyan [We’re going to see a slide in the GDP] if we are going to reenact the budget. Everybody will suffer including the law enforcement,” he said in a speech on Friday at the awarding ceremony for the Outstanding Women in Law Enforcement and National Security of the Philippines at Malacañang.

Senate President Sotto confirmed there is still no enrolled copy of the 2019 budget bill following an impasse over last-minute alterations in the final version of the annual money measure.

“Wala pa [None yet]. Our partymates in the House, headed by Cong. Jack Duavit . . .are asking how they can help in the impasse, if we can call it that,” Sotto said.

“Ang sabi ko sa kanila, ibalik lang natin kung ano yung pinasa namin at ni-ratify namin, pinasa sa bicam, niratify ng both Houses kung ano yung laman, ‘yun ‘yun. Padala sa amin, alam namin kung ano yun, alam ng LBRMO kung ano yun. Siguradong maipapasa natin yung budget within a matter of days, ipapadala agad sa Presidente yun. Ganun kasimple lang ang usapan [I told them, let’s just restore the version we approved and ratified, the one passed in the bicameral, ratified by both houses…whatever was there, that’s it. Send it to us, we know what it is; the LBRMO knows what it is. I’m sure the budget can be done in a few days, and it can be submitted right away to the President. It’s as simple as that].”

He stressed, in a mix of English and Filipino: “Whatever was passed, that should be the enrolled copy. It cannot be touched; that’s clear. We will be violating the Revised Penal Code, we will be violating the Constitution if we change anything after we have ratified it in both houses.”

Palace hopeful

Earlier, Malacanang aired optimism that the Senate and the House will agree eventually to avert a standoff over the “last-minute changes” in the proposed budget for 2019.

Presidential Spokesman Salvador S. Panelo said on Monday the Palace still hopes the budget will be passed as soon as possible so that the government will not be operating under a reenacted budget until August.

House Speaker Arroyo and Andaya will be ending their terms in July.

Asked if the Palace can wait for the passage of the new budget until August, Panelo said: “I’m sure they will agree — the House and the Senate—because they are already talking.”

“I’m sure they will be agreeing eventually on what they should do. All of them are concerned about the welfare of the country,” he added.

In an ambush interview with the BusinessMirror, Arroyo said on Monday she was open to one-on-one talks with Sotto to resolve the two chambers’ differences once and for all, but signaled that she won’t the first to make the call for that, “since they’re [senators] the ones attacking us in media.” Still, she said, if the opportunity for a one-on-one presented itself, Arroyo said she would not turn her back on a dialogue.

‘Process the same’

Meanwhile, Andaya said the Supreme Court ruling on the post-ratification version is not applicable in the 2019 budget.

He said the House has been “doing the same process all these years—after ratification of the bicam report [we can still itemize the funds because the budget contained lump-sum funds].”

The House has the record to prove the legality of the national budget, as the itemization was within the parameters of the bicameral conference committee report ratified by each chamber.

If post-bicameral itemization of lump-sum budget by the House is unconstitutional, Andaya said the Senate also has a post-bicameral realignment worth P75 billion – a claim he first made late Sunday, and which Senate leaders strongly disputed on Monday.

According to Andaya, Senate staff delivered the documents containing budget itemization by senators on February 11–also after ratification of the proposed 2019 GAA last February 8.

He said the senators have the right to suggest to the President to veto the part of the national budget that they think unconstitutional.

“If the contested appropriations represent 2 percent of the national budget,  then why should it jeopardize the uncontested 98 percent? Why hostage the national budget over unfounded and unreasonable fear?” asked Andaya.

No senator ‘touched’ ratified bill – Sotto

Sotto III maintained that none of the senators “touched” the final approved version of the budget bill.

Reacting to Lacson’s lament against the reported budget alterations by the House, and Andaya’s counterclaim that the senators themselves made their own changes post-ratification, Sotto directed critics to the Legislative Budget Research and Monitoring Office (LBRMO).

“You can ask the LBRMO; they scrutinized what we passed,” Sotto said.

“The Senate did not touch anything (after we ratified the budget bill) per LBRMO,” Sotto III told reporters, adding that reports linking senators to the P25-billion Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) funding for projects were “not true.”

If reports are true that their House counterparts touched the ratified budget bill, Sotto said, “they should ask the Speaker (Gloria Arroyo) to sign it,” referring to the bicameral report on the budget bill that has to be submitted to Duterte for signing into law.

Sotto confirmed Senate leaders received word about last-minute alterations in the approved budget bill. “Yun nga ang nakarating sa amin, hindi lang ang opisina ni Sen. Lacson kundi ang LBRMO mismo, sila ang nagpakita sa amin nung mga decrease, increase. May mga increase at decrease doon sa mga districts at may mga congressman mismo na tumatawag sa amin na nakarating sa kanila yung mga nangyayaring yun, sila’y nabawasan, nadagdag sa kung saan saan. Kaya ang total nun pagka pinagsama-sama mo nasa P79 billion.”

“Ang sa akin kasi is the assurance by the LBRMO that as far as we’re concerned, we did not touch anything. The Senate did not touch anything, contrary to what the House appropriation chairman is saying na Senado rin daw merong ganun,” Sotto said. “After we ratified, I have the assurance of the chairman of the committee of finance, the assurance of LBRMO and even Sen. Lacson that we did not touch anything after we ratified it on the floor.”

Reenacted budget

Sotto III did not rule out the possibility the government may have to operate under a “reenacted budget” until the next Congress convenes.

“By July, we can pass a supplemental budget,” Sotto told reporters in an ambush interview, clarifying that the senators “cannot transmit the budget bill (to Malacanang) if it is different from what we ratified.”

He conveyed the senators’ concern that the last-minute alteration of the budget bill could constitute “a violation of the Constitution . . . if they changed what we ratified after the third reading.”

“They (House) should know the rules. As far as I know, it is the first time the budget bill was altered after its ratification,” Sotto added. “The bottomline is that I told them: ibalik yung ni-ratify (restore the version that was ratified).”

Drilon confirms ‘realignment’

In a separate interview, Minority Leader Frank Drilon confirmed that Senate leaders were informed that P75 billion “was being realigned” in the 2019 budget bill.

“The leadership in the Senate met, Senate President Sotto, myself, Senator Legarda and Senator Lacson. We discussed this. There was indeed a report from the Senate Committee on Finance that P75 billion is being realigned. In other words, the House of Representatives is rearranging the furniture,” said Drilon.

He then suggested to the Finance committee chaired by Legarda that all senators be furnished “with the details of this supposed P75-billion realignment.”

“It is not only an itemization of a lump-sum, but our information is that, the items are being realigned so that those who appear to be sympathetic to former Speaker Alvarez and former Majority Leader Farinas were deprived of the allocation or their allocation were reduced. Those in who are favor of the present leadership are favored with additional allocation,” Drilon said.

Drilon said he talked to two congressmen, one from the Visayas and one from Luzon, but withheld their names. “They asserted that 62 congressmen are affected by these realignments, not only itemization. This is the allocation of the House of Representatives.”

According to Drilon, the allegation is that “these items (that) were in the National Expenditure Program, were carried in the General Appropriations Bill, were approved in bicam, and the ratified version of the bicam contained these allocations. So, I would request the chairman of the committee to furnish the senators of the details of this, because you cannot alter what was approved in the bicam, contained in the bicam report and ratified by each chamber.”

Drilon had a suggestion: “if the House would want to realign and change certain allocations in the House of Representatives, my suggestion is that, when we reconvene on May 20, we reconsider the ratification of the bicam report on the budget and reconvene the bicam and correct the alleged revisions in the final bicam report.”

Like Sotto and Lacson, he asserted that “after the bicam report is ratified by both chambers, hindi na pwedeng palitan ito [this cannot be changed], because that would constitute unauthorized alterations of legislative records.”

“You cannot change — even if you are the Speaker or Senate President — what was approved by the chambers,” Drilon said, adding these two officials “are not superior to their respective chambers. It is the chambers which approved this and therefore, any revision must be approved by the chambers.”

He added that even if the budget bill has been printed, “what should be printed is what was approved. If what is printed is not the one approved, we have advised Senate President Sotto not to sign it.”

Asked if the budget bill can still be tackled at the bicam level even if its been printed, Drilon replied: “Of course, as long as it has not been signed. We have done that before in the case of the coco levy fund. We revised it after it was approved by the bicam; recalled it. Of course, ultimately the President vetoed the bill. We can reconsider our approval of the bicam report. The printing of the budget is immaterial.”

Should the House insist that the congressmen just tinkered with typographical errors, Drilon said Sotto is not likely to sign the enrolled copy of the bill. “Then there will be no budget. I suggest the solution is, if they really want to do this and say, we are realigning our share of the pork barrel  – let’s call a spade a spade – let’s reconsider the approval of the bicam report, reconvene the bicam, come up with a new ratified report, and have it printed. You cannot just revise and alter what was approved in the bicam.”

The Minority Leader played down concerns over government operating under a reenacted budget in an election year. “Wala naman. The items that were already utilized can no longer be utilized.”

Initial numbers conveyed to senators by the DOF, according to Lacson, showed a pushback of the budget approval until August could mean losses of P500 million daily to the economy, which, in turn, will shave off at least 1.5 percent from the GDP growth targets.

Government and private economists earlier said further delays in the passage of the 2019 budget could dampen growth prospects this year.

The Development Budget Coordination Committee (DBCC) targets GDP growth at 7 to 8 percent in 2019 until 2022 annually.

Pressed on what will the Palace do to avoid the scenario of having further delays in infrastructure projects because of a reenacted budget, Panelo surmised the President will persuade the legislators to finish the passage of the budget once and for all.

Panelo said he’s certain Duterte will exercise his line-item veto power to make sure that the 2019 budget is constitutional.

“From the very beginning, we said that he will exercise his power to veto if he feels that indeed the budget to be given to him does not conform with the Constitution; otherwise he will sign it into law,” he said.

Hostage

In a separate press conference, House Senior Deputy Minority Leader Anthony Bravo of COOP Natcco said it is the Filipino people who will suffer by holding hostage the 2019 national budget.

“This budget is very much needed by this administration. This Budget is very much needed by our people. So I’m appealing to the Senate. Let the President exercise his discretion for the veto power,” Bravo said.

In response to the recent remarks of Lacson on the budget, Bravo said the senator may be holding the proposed budget hostage because of a “personal vendetta” against Arroyo, whom Lacson opposed when she was President.

“ . . . I think his agenda is clear: he doesn’t want the Speaker to be successful in her leadership as the Speaker. And it’s the budget. I know the majority of the Senators want to pass the budget, but I wonder why they are quiet about the remarks of their colleague,” Bravo said.

He added that Arroyo was never involved in the budget amendments.

Lacson debunked Bravo’s claim he was waging a “vendetta” against Arroyo.

“Rep. Bravo’s opinion reflects his true character,” said Lacson, adding: “I am a forgiving person. I have forgiven those who have wronged me.”

He  insisted that “this is not about Speaker (Gloria) Arroyo. This is not about any congressman or senator. This is about my personal crusade against the pork barrel system. This is about the national budget, which is the lifeblood of our country.”

Responding to Andaya’s claims of Senate realignments in the 2019 budget bill, Lacson said: “The P75 billion he (Andaya) is referring to was taken up during the interpellation in the Senate. That was the amount inserted by then DBM Secretary Benjamin Diokno in the DPWH budget, and which was slashed after the DPWH said it was not aware of it.”

The senator clarified that “the P23 billion – not P25 billion as Rep. Andaya claimed – refers to the individual amendments of some senators, which I exposed.”

Lacson added: “I am not aware of any single senator who has made changes to the budget, after it was approved in the bicameral conference level. If Rep. Andaya can provide more details, such as the text message from a certain Ms. Salamanca, I will join him in denouncing such practice because it is not only in violation of the legislative process, but in violation of the Constitution itself.” #

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