By Jovee Marie N. Dela Cruz and Butch Fernandez
AFTER a series of marathon meetings, the Senate and House panels are set to submit for plenary ratification of the two chambers a reconciled final version of the P3.757-trillion national budget bill for 2019, which will then be transmitted to Malacanang for signing into law.
“Bicam signing on Friday and then ratification at 3 p.m.,” Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri told BusinessMirror late Wednesday.
With encouragement from Malacanang, the two chambers had raced against time to reconcile their versions of the budget bill, amid fears that failure to finish it would mean extending until July the period in which the country would be running under the reenacted 2018 budget.
Accusations and counter-accusations – between the Senate and House, and between the House and the Executive branch, chiefly the Department of Budget and Management – had prolonged the already extended timeline for passing the measure.
Earlier on Wednesday, the contingent of the House of Representatives to the bicameral conference committee said they were ready to ratify the proposed budget for this year.
During the plenary session, House Committee on Appropriations Chairman Rolando Andaya Jr. said while members of the lower chamber are ready, the body is still waiting the “word” from Senate before signing the bicameral report.
“At this point of time, the House bicameral conference committee is ready to ratify our proposed 2019 budget. But we would like to give courtesy to the Senate and wait for them,” he said without giving further details.
The House of Representatives said it will stretch its session until Friday to ratify the final reconciled version before submission to the Palace.
On Wednesday, the senators agreed to also hold sessions until Friday to have time to ratify the 2019 budget bill as well.
The House is scheduled to hold sessions until February 6 before it adjourns starting February 9 to May 19 for the 2019 midterm elections.
Andaya said that definitely, the 2019 GAA will be ready for President Duterte’s signature next week.
THE Senate, set to adjourn for a 14-week congressional recess, agreed to work overtime and hold marathon sessions until Friday to wrap up unfinished business and ratify the final version of the budget bill expected to be submitted to Duterte for signing into law — all this in order to cut short the period that government will have to operate under the reenacted 2018 budget.
Senate President Vicente Sotto III told reporters Wednesday the senators were expecting to be updated by Sen. Loren Legarda, who chairs the Senate panel in bicameral talks with their House counterparts to reconcile differing provisions in the Senate and House versions of the annual money measure.
“Senator Legarda will report to us on the bicam talks and then we will take it (2019 budget bill) up,” the Senate President said in an ambush interview. “We will play it by ear thereafter, depending on the situation,” Sotto said, hinting that senators will then decide to either “approve or disapprove” the bicameral panel’s reconciled version of the annual appropriation measure.
The Senate President disclosed that a smaller bicameral panel was earlier tasked to “facilitate the procedure” even as the members of the whole bicameral contingents will still be the one to endorse the final version of the budget bill for submission for plenary approval by the Senate and the House of Representatives.
Sotto explained this was why the senators will hold another caucus to brief members on what was agreed upon in the bicameral talks, hinting that amendments may still be made in the bicameral version. “Hindi pa naman ‘yan [But that’s not yet] written in stone,” he said.
According to Sotto, the decision to conduct sessions until Friday was prompted by a request from Malacañang to extend sessions until the budget bill has been passed.
Support for veto
In the same interview, the Senate President signalled support for Sen. Panfilo Lacson’s initiative to take down multimillion-peso pork barrel allocations for lawmakers’ pet projects inserted in the 2019 budget bill. “Kung nararapat, at kung talagang maliwanag na pork, bakit hindi [If necessary and it’s clearly pork, why not]?,” Sotto III said, adding; “Dapat i-veto [It should be vetoed].”
At the House, Andaya also backed the call for the President to use his line-item veto power to remove all pork barrel insertions in the 2019 national budget.
“There are so many questions on the 2019 budget that remain unanswered by DBM Secretary Diokno. These will render all the work done by the Bicameral Committee useless,” he said.
“These issues include the P75-billion insertion in the DPWH budget, the flood control scam, the P81-million bank deposits to Aremar Construction, the anomalous bidding of big-ticket projects by the DBM-Procurement Service, the P50-billion stagnant funds in DBM-PS and PITC, and now the multi-billion 2017 and 2018 savings that serve as DBM’s pork barrel,” he said.
However, Andaya said the House will seek clarification from the Supreme Court should the President decide to veto parts of the 2019 budget.
“A veto message prepared by Secretary Diokno will surely perpetuate these unanswered issues, unfortunately with the President as unwitting victim. The House panel will elevate the veto message to the Supreme Court to clarify, not to defy, the veto message. We need to know the clear implications of the line items to be vetoed,” he said.
Likewise, Andaya said lawmakers will seek to intervene in the exemption being sought by the DBM from the Commission on Elections (Comelec) on the infrastructure ban.
“We need to be informed what types of projects are to be exempted from the election ban and the sourcing of funds for these projects,” he said.