By Butch Fernandez & Bernadette D. Nicolas, November 29 2018; Business Mirror
Image Credit to Ibon.org
SENATE President Vicente C. Sotto III gave assurances on Wednesday that senators are working on a solution to avert a reenacted 2018 national budget should the two chambers of Congress fail to ratify a reconciled final version of the 2019 budget bill.
Sotto acknowledged that the tight congressional calendar approaching the Christmas recess may force lawmakers to work overtime, as Budget Secretary Benjamin E. Diokno had requested.
Diokno, who earlier warned that enactment of the 2019 budget law in January—instead of December—would dent growth prospects in the first and second quarters, met with Senate leaders on Wednesday and pushed his appeal for Congress to work overtime in order to have the budgetsigned by the President by year-end.
He told reporters after the meeting he got the sense that lawmakers were willing to amend their legislative calendar in order to make this possible.
Sotto confirmed that the Executive, through the DBM, had requested that lawmakers “hasten the deliberations and passage of the 2019, budget bill,” saying the tight January 27, 2019 timetable for bicameral conference ratification has triggered apprehensions that the two chambers will run out of time.
“There will be less than a week before the campaign period starts or a little over a week, and, therefore, all public works and other projects of government will have to be stopped until the elections,” Sotto said.
This means, he added, “another delay of five months. That is their apprehension, so we might be looking for a solution later.”
Asked if the Senate and the House can still rush passage of the budget bill, Sotto admitted: “Hindi kaya talaga. Siguro kailangan humanap kami ng paraan kung papano ’yung mga importanteng dapat mga kilos ng gobyerno ay hindi mapigil [It’s really hard. Maybe we need to find a way so that the important activities of the government won’t be derailed] because of the campaign period.”
Option: Joint resolution
AS an alternative, Sotto said lawmakers are considering the passage of a joint resolution by the Senate and the House allowing “extension of the MOOE [maintenance and other operating expenses] and capital outlay of the 2018 budget.”
Sotto suggested the joint resolution can be effective “until next year.”
“So, baka possible ’yun ang maka-offset ng mga hindi mai-dedeliver because of the campaign period. Continuation lang ’yun noong 2018 [So, that might possibly offset the funding for projects that cannot be delivered because of the campaign period. It’s just a continuation of 2018],” Sotto said.
Still, Sotto admitted: “I don’t know the intricacies of whether that would be legal or not, so we have to listen to the DBM later and meet with the Department of Finance also.”
After the plea for the Senate to speed up passage within the year of the proposed 2019 budget of P3.757 trillion in order to avert a reenacted budget, Diokno remained hopeful that things can be worked out.
“I think they are planning [to revise] the schedule,” he said in a chance interview with reporters after his meeting with senators. “Because, in the original schedule, they would be adjourning on December 15, then they will be resuming on January 14. It’s not just January, it’s January 14. Why January 14?…. The ordinary workers, we will already go back to work January 7,” he said.
The meeting happened after Diokno said the national budget for next year may not be signed into law before the year-end based on the new calendar transmitted by the Senate. The latter had to adjust its timetable after the House of Representatives delayed transmission of the budget bill despite having gotten the Executive’s submission on July 23, right after the President delivered his State of the Nation Address (Sona).
According to the updated calendar, the earliest date for Congress ratification will be on January 25, 2019, and the latest possible date would be on February 7.
If this calendar will be followed, the government will be operating under a reenacted budget, the first under the Duterte administration.
Nonetheless, Diokno said he is confident the budget can still be passed before year-end. “I have passed 20 budgets in my lifetime. It can be done if they wanted to,” he said.
Meanwhile, senators said they will try to pass the budget before the year-end.
Sen. Majority Leader Juan Miguel F. Zubiri told reporters their “counterproposal is to work double-time” after Malacañang’s appeal to approve the budget before January 1 next year.
“[Hopefully], on December 13, we can already ratify the budget,” Zubiri said.
Senate President Vicente Sotto said the budget can be passed before the end of the year if the budget interpellations are fast-tracked.
“The President said the signing can be done until December 31,” Sotto said.
Earlier, Diokno warned that Congress’s failure to approve the 2019 budget will affect the country’s economic growth for the first and second quarters, as there will be a five-month implementation gap for the infrastructure projects.
However, he clarified that this will mainly cover the small projects, such as roads and school buildings, and this development will not affect the big infrastructure projects as most of them are covered by the Multi-Year Obligational Authority.
Although Diokno stopped short of zeroing on a figure, he said there will likely be a slowdown in the capital outlays for the first two quarters next year.
Nonetheless, he remained confident the government can meet the GDP growth target of 7 to 8 percent for next year.
Diokno has since said the President has given Congress “more than enough time to scrutinize the budget.” He recalled giving the Executive’s budget proposal right after the Sona. However, the reshuffle in the House of Representatives, with the changing of the Speaker to Rep. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and a long tussle between House leaders and DBM over the introduction of the first-ever cash-based budget, derailed the budget timeline.
The House transmitted the budget bill to the Senate only last week.