By Ellson Quismorio
Now the real work starts at the House of Representatives.
Top officials of the Lower Chamber on Tuesday officially received the P4.1-trillion National Expenditure Program (NEP) for 2020 from the Department of Budget and Management (DBM), paving the way for the legislators’ scrutiny of the proposed budget.
The NEP serves as the basis for the General Appropriations Bill (GAB), which will become the General Appropriations Act (GAA) once signed by President Rodrigo Duterte.
The proposed 2020 NEP represents a 12-percent (P438 billion) increase from the 2019 GAA of P3.662 trillion.
Among those present during the ceremonial turnover of the NEP were Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano (Taguig-Pateros), Deputy Speaker LRay Villafuerte (Camarines Sur 2nd district), Majority Leader Martin Romualdez (Leyte 1st district), Minority Leader Benny Abante (Manila 6th district), Rep. Isidro Ungab (Davao City 3rd district), and DBM Acting Secretary Wendel Avisado.
The Committee on Appropriations chaired by Ungab will lead the perusal of the proposed budget which aims to “continue the Philippines’s journey to a more peaceful and progressive nation,” according to Avisado.
The House actually released an initial schedule of the per-agency budget deliberations last week to show its readiness for the task at hand, but it’s only now that the solons have laid their hands on the voluminous document. The marathon hearings will begin on Thursday.
“We will work day and night. I promised a speedy and record breaking budget process…we’re raring to get to work,” Cayetano said.
Cayetano said he expects a “less-tedious” budget process since less parochial or local concerns will be raised by congressmen during the hearings.
“This budget already contains answers to many of the parochial concerns,” the speaker noted.
Social and economic services make up the lion’s share of the 2020 NEP, with allocations of P1,525.2 trillion and P1,183.7 trillion, respectively. General public services were allocated P734.5 billion; debt burden, P451 billion; and defense, P195.6 billion.
No fund ‘parking’
Cayetano said the House won’t allow the “parking” of dubious funds in the national budget.
“The parking of funds, the way I understand it, it’s a form of corruption,” Cayetano said at the ceremonial submission of the proposed 2020 national budget.
Cayetano, who is on his first term in the House, distanced himself from past budgets smeared with the fund parking controversy.
“I cannot speak about the past budgets, wala akong personal knowledge doon (I have no personal knowledge about those).”
The previous DBM leadership had been accused of “parking” or inserting billions worth of public funds in various areas of the budget, with the purpose of such funds being unclear at best.
These included insertions worth P54 billion under flood mitigation projects in the 2018 budget and P75 billion under the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) allocation in the 2019 budget.
The parked funds have been likened by critics to “pork barrel,” the discretionary nature of which makes them prone to corruption and misuse. Lawmakers’ discretionary funds were declared illegal by the Supreme Court (SC) in 2014.
“Pork barrel is a thing of the past,” Cayetano said.
“We also commend the President’s commitment through acting Budget Sec. [Wendel] Avisado to ensure an equitable and corruption-free distribution of government resources to further propel the economy,” Romualdez added.
Avisado, who was also present at the ceremony, guaranteed that there were no parked funds in the 2020 NEP and that every centavo has an identified purpose.
“Yung sinasabing naka-park, naka-park in the sense na ginagamit kung saan, hindi po. Dito po sa budget na ito, identified po lahat yan. Maliwanag po kung saan mapupunta yung P4.1 trillion (The alleged parking of funds that are used for whatever purpose, we don’t have that. We’ve identified all the projects in this budget. It’s clear where the P4.1 trillion will go),” he said, responding to a reporter’s query.
Top 10 agencies
The national budget is traditionally the first major measure that the House approves during a given year. During the conduct of budget deliberations, other measures are usually placed on the back-burner.
For this year, House members are out to erase the embarrassment from the delayed passage of the 2019 GAA. The delayed GAA — the first under the Duterte administration–forced the government to run on a reenacted budget for the first quarter of the year.
The agencies with the top 10 budget appropriations are as follows: Department of Education (DepEd), P673 billion; Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), P534.3 billion; Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG), P238 billion; Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), P195 billion; and Department of National Defense (DND), P189 billion.
Rounding up the top 10 are the Department of Health (DOH), P166.5 billion; Department of Transportation (DOTr), P147 billion; Department of Agriculture (DA), P56.8 billion; the Judiciary, P38.7 billion; and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), P26.4 billion.
Some P70.6 billion will also be allocated for the newly-created Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao or BARMM.
A P10-billion Rice Competitiveness Enhancement Fund (RCEF) for local farmers–one of the key provisions of the contentious Rice Tariffication Act–has also been incorporated in the proposed budget for next year.
“This budget will renew our push for real change by sustaining our investments in public infrastructure and health capital development, namely health care, education and poverty alleviation,” Avisado said.
Some P34 billion has been set aside for the new Salary Standardization Law that would raise the pay of public school teachers.
“It is our hope and prayer that after due and extensive deliberation, the 2020 NEP will be passed by the House of Representatives and the Senate in due time,” the DBM chief added.
Cayetano expressed confidence for the smooth sailing of the budget in the House since two of its top stewards in Ungab and Avisado are known to be close to President Duterte, having worked with him at the local level during his time as Davao City mayor.
Ungab, for his part, described the 2020 NEP as “pro-poor.”
“Reducing poverty incidence is the best legacy that the executive and legislative can leave,” the Mindanao lawmaker said.
Meanwhile, Malacañang is hopeful for the timely passage of the proposed 2020 national budget to ensure uninterrupted funding for key government programs.
“We can always hope that it will pass on time. Any delay will affect our economy. I’m sure the members of Congress know that,” Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo said during a Palace press briefing.
“We are always hopeful whether Congress is dominated by allies of the President or not, because after all, as we said repeatedly, members of Congress should know what is good for the Filipino people being representatives of them,” he added. (with a report from Genalyn Kabiling)