By Paolo Romero, March 6 2019; Philippine Star

Image Credit to Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines — The Senate and the House of Representatives could be headed for another showdown over the alleged last-minute insertions in the P3.7-trillion General Appropriations Bill (GAB).

Senate President Vicente Sotto III said he will not sign the enrolled copy of the proposed national budget – which is still being printed before its transmittal to Malacañang for President Duterte’s signature – if he finds changes made after its ratification by Congress last Feb. 8.

“I will not sign anything that we did not approve. You should know me better than that,” Sotto told reporters when asked whether or not he will sign the enrolled copy of the GAB.

Sotto said he will consult with Sen. Loren Legarda, chair of the Senate finance committee, and Sen. Panfilo Lacson, who earlier alleged that House leaders were making changes to the GAB before its printing even after the two chambers had ratified it.

Lacson yesterday warned that the amendments being made to the GAB would violate the Constitution and Sotto would be complicit if he signs the measure before it is transmitted to Malacañang.

Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian, chairman of the economic affairs committee, said the GAB should not be touched anymore as it was already ratified.

“We’re co-equal branches so we must be vigilant if there were changes made,” Gatchalian maintained.

“For example, there were some provisions changed and it’s not in our records, that will create problems; actually that can create a constitutional impasse if (the House version is) different from (ours in the Senate),” he said.

Gatchalian said legislative records can serve as reference to see whether the printed copy is the same as the GAB ratified by Congress.

“We’re not accusing (anyone) of doing something. What’s important is we have the same records,” he said.

Gatchalian warned that delays in the enactment of the proposed budget would adversely affect the country’s growth this year.

He suggested that Malacañang prod the House to transmit the GAB for signing.

‘Clearly unconstitutional’

Lacson yesterday described as “clearly unconstitutional” the alleged realignment of the 2019 national budget, reportedly on orders of Speaker Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

Lacson said Arroyo and other members of the House of Representatives have no business manipulating the ratified bicameral report on the P3.757-trillion 2019 national budget prior to the printing and enrollment of the GAB.

“Needless to say, and it is basic in our legislative process that the House as a body has the sole power to make the amendments, not the Speaker, and certainly not after the ratification of the bicameral report,” Lacson maintained.

“Speaker Arroyo has no business and legal authority to prepare and impose the menu list of the (Department of Health) appropriations for Health Facilities Enhancement Program worth P25 million in individual allocations for her favored congressmen, including a P2.5-million allocation for the purchase of an ambulance, while only P8 million is being distributed to those who did not support her election as speaker,” he noted.

No detailed ‘pork’

But a key member of the House shot back at Lacson and admitted that the delay was due to their itemization of projects, where senators allegedly could not make itemized allocations.

“We have been insisting to our friends in the Senate to fully disclose the authorship and details of the Senate amendments to the budget,” Camarines Sur Rep. Rolando Andaya Jr., chairman of the House committee on appropriations, said.

“If the procedure being undertaken by the House is illegal, then the Senate is equally guilty if on its part it had not itemized the pet amendments on the budget by the senators.

“We believe that by detailing the items in the budget, by enumerating what will be funded, projects and programs, per agency and by district, will be clear and evident,” Andaya declared. “After all, transparency and accountability is the name of the game.”

While House members have showed their itemized list of allocations in the spirit of transparency, the 23-member Senate has yet to itemize its P190-billion pork barrel allocation for this year.

The senators allotted about P190 billion for themselves while the 292-member House came out with a P51-billion budget in this year’s national budget.

“The House is itemizing the appropriations therein, flushing out lump-sum funds, without departing from the approved specifications of the House-Senate approved budget and by so doing (the budget is) more transparent and easy to scrutinize,” Andaya said.

This developed as Andaya’s fellow Camarines Sur lawmaker Rep. LRay Villafuerte decried the undue delay in the transmittal of the GAB.

Villafuerte said the delay has only “deepened suspicions that underhanded acts fueled by greed are taking place during this congressional break to ensure that billions in budgetary outlays are realigned or padded to the pork funds of favored lawmakers.”

Arroyo denies manipulation

Arroyo has denied manipulating the budget, presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said yesterday.

“According to Speaker Arroyo, as far as she knows, whatever is approved in the (bicameral conference) is now the one being printed for submission to the executive,” Panelo told reporters in Malacañang. – With Cecille Suerte Felipe, Delon Porcalla, Alexis Romero