THE Bicameral Conference Committee on the proposed national budget on Thursday started hammering out a final version of the proposed 2024 General Appropriations Act, which will be submitted for President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s signature before his trip to Tokyo in the second week of December.
House Committee on Appropriations and AKO Bicol Party-list Rep. Elizaldy Co. urged lawmakers to adopt substantial changes introduced by the House leadership that promote transparency in public spending, safeguard national security, ensure food sufficiency, and support a population still reeling from the adverse effects of the pandemic.
In crafting the House version of the budget bill, Co said lawmakers tried to strike a balance in handling debts and allocating funds to pivotal government projects and programs while being mindful of the administrative capacity of various agencies to achieve budget objectives.
The proposed budget for next year totals P5.786 trillion, including P1.748 trillion for debt payments and other expenditures that are automatically appropriated.
General appropriations increased 9.5 percent to P4.02 trillion from the 2023 budget, while unprogrammed funds declined by 65 percent to P281.9 billion.
Co said the House’s budget version “underscores the need for a comprehensive strategy to enhance efficiency, transparency, and accountability in program implementation.”
To uphold this vision, the House reallocated controversial confidential funds from various government offices, including the Office of the Vice President and the Department of Education.
The House version stripped various government offices, including the Office of the Vice President and the Department of Education—both agencies led by Vice President Sara Duterte—of a total of P1.23 billion in controversial confidential funds and allocated them to frontline agencies in charge of monitoring and protecting the country’s territorial rights in the West Philippine Sea.
The House realigned the confidential funds and instead gave them as additional budgets to the National Intelligence and Coordination Agency, P300 million; the National Security Council, P100 million; the Philippine Coast Guard, P200 million, for ammunition and intelligence activities; and the Department of Transportation, P381.8 million, as additional budgets for the upgrade and expansion of the airport in Pag-Asa Island.
Earlier, some media organizations reported that some senators favor reinstating confidential fund allocations, particularly those for the OVP and DepEd.
Co appealed to their Senate counterparts to “approach this endeavor with a spirit of unity and guided by the principles of transparency, accountability, and the unwavering pursuit of the common good.”
“Let us find a way to reconcile our differences, aligning them with the overarching programs of the present administration,” he added.
Speaker Romualdez urged swift deliberations by the Bicameral Conference Committee to pass the 2024 budget before the Christmas break, emphasizing the importance of timely allocation to boost economic activity, attract investments, create jobs, and secure a better future for the Filipino people.
The House version allocated P20 billion for the rice subsidy program, P40 billion to improve irrigation, and P1 billion for fisheries and post-harvest facilities.
The House leader appealed to the Bicameral Conference Committee to quickly craft a final version of the 2024 budget so it could be passed before Congress goes on Christmas break.
Teachers’ pay hike
In a related matter, House Deputy Minority Leader and ACT-Teachers Party-list Rep. France Castro called on the bicameral committee to include the salary increase budget for teachers in the 2024 national budget.
She stressed the urgency of addressing teachers’ salary concerns, expressing concern over the lack of study results from the Department of Budget and Management and the Governance Commission for government-owned or controlled corporations on proposed salary increases.
Assistant Minority Leader and Gabriela Women’s Party Rep. Arlene Brosas also appealed to the House leadership to include P31.57 billion funding for the rehabilitation of traditional jeepneys in the final version of the 2024 national budget.
Brosas argued that subsidizing the replacement of engines for over 63,000 public utility vehicles is a more viable option than the controversial PUV modernization program.
Image credits: Mark Pimentel/Senate PRIB