By Vanne Elaine Terrazola
The Congress bicameral conference committee started finalizing the P4.1-trillion proposed 2020 national budget bill on Friday, November 29.
Members of the Senate and House of Representatives met in Makati City to discuss their respective versions of the General Appropriations Bill (GAB) for next year which they are aiming to ratify and transmit to President Duterte before they go on the Christmas break.
The first meeting was brief after the bicam panel decided to authorize Senator Juan Edgardo “Sonny” Angara and Davao City 3rd District Representative Isidro Ungab to first meet one-on-one to discuss the amendments proposed by their respective chambers for the budget.
Angara, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, leads the 15-man Senate contingent to the bicam, while Ungab, who heads the House Appropriations Committee, leads the House panel, which consists of 23 members.
It was Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman who moved for the one-on-one meeting between Angara and Ungab, so that the two officials can “amicably” settle the differing provisions of their budget bills, as well as additional amendments that are not included in the Senate and House approved GABs.
“The House and the Senate will study the respective changes on…each versions of the budget tapos we’ll meet again next week, I think to reconcile,” Angara told reporters after the bicam meeting.
“But there’s always a consultation. What happens is usually, ‘pag may (is when there are) amendments na (that) they don’t agree with, we’ll have to discuss it with the senator or the congressman who made the amendment,” he added.
The House of Representatives earlier bared proposing some P9.5-billion worth of institutional amendments to its GAB version.
The Senate, for its part, pushed for the realignment of at least P45 billion from the allocations given to agencies to augment the funds for priority government programs, like the increase in the salaries of government workers, nurses and public school teachers.
Sen. Panfilo Lacson, member of the Senate delegation, said the one-on-one meeting will also speed up the bicam’s deliberation on the 2020 budget as this will allow them to focus on the more contentious issues.
Lacson, during their meeting, called for transparency between the two chambers in submitting their budget proposals, especially that “new amendments” usually happen during the bicam. Members of the House and Senate panels did not object to his appeal.
With this development, senators are not expecting a repeat of the 2019 budget impasse, when the Senate disputed the last-minute insertions made by the House following the ratification of the GAB. The delay resulted in the government having to operate with a reenacted budget early this year, affecting the implementation of key government programs.
“Definitely,” Angara said when asked if he believed that the proposed 2020 budget will face smooth sailing. “I think, that dispute was a product [of the change in] leadership sa (in the) House, eh. Ito, mukang wala namang pagbabago (This time, there were no changes), so I think, [it will be] smoother.”
Sen. Joel Villanueva, also a member of the Senate bicam panel, said he was upbeat that the 2020 GAB will hurdle the Congress on time.
“We are optimistic that the 2020 national budget will be passed on time as we kicked off the bicameral conference proceedings on the disagreeing provisions on the general appropriations bill this morning,” Villanueva said in a statement.
“The committee’s sentiment to finalize the national budget immediately is unanimous, and we appreaciate the determination of our colleagues from the House of Representatives to work on one of the most important piece of legislation Congress is mandated to pass,” he added.
Lacson for his part, said he was hoping that the two Congress chambers have learned their lesson from this year’s budget delay.
“Ang problema lang basta huwag after ma-ratify namin. Pag nag-come up na kami with common version, reconciled version, wag nila ulitin ang ginawa noong panahon ni GMA, na-ratify ng Senate and HOR, nag-insert pa sila ng P75 billion. (The problem would be if we have come up with a reconciled version and the House would repeat what it did during the leadership of Speaker Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, that they inserted P75 billion after the Senate and HOR ratified the final GAB),” he said.
“That is unacceptable, even unconstitutional,” Lacson added.
“I have high hopes [for] House appropriations committee chair Sid Ungab,” he added.
Minority Senator Francis Pangilinan echoed Lacson, but also hoped that the final version of 2020 budget will be approved by the Senate and House before year’s end.
“I hope so because we should have learned from what we have experienced last year that affected our economic growth. I hope we learned from that, and it is also a good sign that both houses of Congress passed on third reading the budget early, and that the bicam discussed this early. That’s a good sign,” Pangilinan said in mixed English and Filipino.
Pangilinan said he was also hoping that Angara could Angara defend the Senate’s amendments before the House contingent.
The bicam is expected to convene again next week after its members have reviewed the Senate and House amendments.