By Vanne Elaine Terrazola and Mario Casayuran
The 2019 General Appropriations Bill (GAB) is now officially enrolled for President Duterte’s signature.
On Tuesday, Senate President Vicente Sotto III signed the printed copy of the proposed P3.757-trillion budget for 2019, breaking the impasse between the two Houses of Congress.
“I already signed the budget. The enrolled copy is now going to be enrolled bill presented to President. But I placed my reservations on the signature,” the Senate chief announced in a press briefing Tuesday.
Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon, Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri, and Senator Panfilo Lacson were with him as he made the announcement.
Sotto said he has sent the enrolled budget bill to President Duterte the same afternoon, along with a letter expressing his reservations in signing the GAB due to allegations about the supposed post-ratification realignments allegedly done by the House of Representatives.
In his annotation, Sotto told Duterte that he affixed his signature on the budget bill “with strong reservations” as he said his approval only covers “those items approved by the Bicameral Conference Committee and ratified by both Houses of Congress.”
He pointed out the supposed internal realignments made by the Lower Chamber to the government spending bill after its ratification, specifically the reallocation of the P75 billion of fund from the budget of the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH).
“It is my view that it is unconstitutional that P75 billion worth of programs/projects under the Local Infrastructure Program of the Department of Public Works and Highways was funded through internal realignment after the Bicameral Conference Committee Report was ratified,” Sotto said in his letter.
The realigned funds, according to Sotto, were sourced from the DPWH’s asset, bridge, and network development programs, as well as from flood management, and convergence and support programs.
In transmitting the enrolled bill, the Senate leader also attached a 157-page list containing P95 billion worth of programs or projects, including the P75 billion cut from the DPWH, funded from the House’s realignments.
“The President may wish to consider disapproving these unconstitutional realignments, pursuant to his constitutional power to veto particular items in the General Appropiratios Bill,” Sotto urged Duterte.
Breaking the impasse
Sotto said he met Drilon, Zubiri, Lacson, Sen. Loren Legarda, and Senate President Pro-Tempore Ralph Recto Monday night following the meeting of senators and congressmen on the budget.
“We have the same thinking that let us no longer delay more the issue and address it directly,” he said.
The idea of signing the GAB with reservations was proposed by Drilon and was agreed upon by the senators.
The GAB he signed was the same document earlier recalled by the House leadership, which Sotto claimed contained the illegal realignments.
Sotto and Lacson said they recognize President Duterte’s authority over the GAB. It is up to the Chief Executive to approve or veto the supposed realignments by congressmen, Lacson said.
“The compromise solution is proof that while we belong to different political persuasions in the Senate, pagdating po ng kapakanan ng taong bayan, kami po ay nagkakaisa for the interest of the country,” Drilon, for his part, said.
“Because if the deadlock remains, at least 20 percent of the gross domestic product coming from the public sector could not be realized,” he added.
Drilon adds: “We proposed this language… in order that we maintain our position that these insertions are unconstitutional, but at the same time not prejudice national interest by holding on to the unsigned General Appropriations Act.”
The Senate minority leader, who is willing to lawyer for Sotto, maintained that the Senate chief’s signature should not be interpreted as an agreement with the House’s realignments.
Lacson said the Palace and the House of Representatives, through San Juan City Rep. Ronaldo Zamora, has been informed of the Senate’s move.
Zamora also offered to act as legal counsel of Sotto should he be brought to court for signing the 2019 budget.
Both Drilon and Zamora are bar topnotchers. (With a report from Mario B. Casayuran)