By Butch Fernandez, January 29 2019; Business Mirror

Image Credit to Business World

SENATORS on Monday moved to firm up the timetable for Congress to front-load passage of the P3.757-trillion 2019 budget bill, amid reports that the delayed enactment of the annual money measure, according to the Department of Finance, cut government’s spending by P46 billion, effectively denting the country’s first-quarter growth.

Senate President Vicente Sotto III, shortly after banging the gavel opening Monday’s session, called for a closed-door all-senators caucus to adjust and finalize their agenda, giving the pending budget bill top priority.

Senators earlier acknowledged the possibility of continuing the practice of holding marathon sessions to tackle the proposed budgets of various executive departments, earlier opting to start sessions at 10 a.m., with an option to extend budget deliberations until their afternoon regular sessions, before taking up other pending matters.

‘Alakdan’ Division funds vs terror

This developed as Sen. Panfilo Lacson Sr. pushed for a P4.78-billion institutional amendment in the P3.7-trillion 2019 budget for an infantry division that, he says, will counter threats from armed groups like the Abu Sayyaf.

Lacson offered the amendment for consideration by lawmakers at Monday’s bicameral conference committee meeting on the 2019 budget, saying the additional funding to mobilize the 11th Infantry Division was sought by the Department of National Defense. “It is an institutional amendment that I introduced, for the activation of an infantry division as requested by the DND.” In making the motion, the senator clarified that institutional amendments should not be set aside because these were requested by the agencies concerned, and are “properly vetted by lawmakers.”

According to Lacson, the 11th Infantry “Alakdan” Division, provisionally activated by the Philippine Army last December 1 in Jolo, Sulu, aims to strengthen the AFP’s efforts to address the threat by the Abu Sayyaf in the Basilan-Sulu-Tawi-Tawi (BaSulTa) area.

A former National Police chief, the senator recalled that the Abu Sayyaf had been linked to various incidents of violence, and was initially being considered as the perpetrator of last Sunday’s bombing of a church in Jolo, Sulu, that left more than 20 people dead and dozens of others injured.

Lacson noted that the P4.78-billion institutional amendment is part of the unit’s three-year funding requirement. “We should not set aside institutional amendments because these were requested. We also vet,” he added.

At the same time, Lacson pressed for transparency in crafting the national budget, by retaining the Unified Accounts Code Structure in the budget bill. He said the UACS, which helps track programs for funding in the budget, is in the National Expenditure Program—the version of the budget submitted by Malacañang to Congress—but is usually gone by the time the budget bill is transmitted by the House of Representatives to the Senate.

While it may be too late for the UACS in this year’s budget, Lacson said the UACS should be maintained in future budget deliberations so items for funding will be easier to trace.

“It is easier to track where the line items would go if we maintained the UACS. My suggestion is future budget deliberations we maintain the presence of UACS so that it would be easier to trace,” he added.