Congress passes 2019 budget after 2-month delay

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, February 8) — The much-delayed 2019 budget is finally up for approval by President Rodrigo Duterte after both houses of Congress ratified on Friday the bicameral conference committee report containing the final version of the budget bill.

The Congressional approval follows two months of wranglings over alleged anomalous "insertions" in the budget.

Fresh funding from Congress will avert further delays in the implementation of government projects, which economic managers have warned would negatively impact the country.

READ: DOF forecasts economic slowdown under reenacted budget

The bicameral conference committee agreed on the final version of the 2019 budget on the same day, adding a total of ?96.671 billion in funds, with the Health, Defense, Justice and Social Welfare departments, and the Office of the Ombudsman getting the biggest augmentations.

Members of the panel confirmed to House Appropriations Committee chair Camarines Sur 1st District Rep. Rolando Andaya during their meeting that they have done away with cash-based budgeting.

A cash-based budget would have only appropriated funds to be spent for just one year, unlike past obligations-based budgets which allows for funds to be spent beyond the current year. House lawmakers including Andaya have opposed cash-based budgeting.

Senate Finance committee chair Loren Legarda said among amendments the bicameral conference committee made to the budget is the allocation of P21 billion to fund unfinished and ill-equipped health centers and P1 billion for school-based feeding programs.

Legarda also said the 2019 budget ensures that the implementation of the Bangsamoro Organic Act will be automatically appropriated.

The bicameral conference committee also approved a last minute amendment introduced by Andaya to restore internal revenue allotments to some local government units totalling to P2.3578 billion.

Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon, however, voted against the bicameral conference committee report on the 2019 budget, saying Congress was not given enough time to scrutinize the proposal.

"To give my vote to this budget is like signing a blank check. I simply cannot do that," Drilon said.

Aside from Drilon, Senators Paolo Benigno "Bam" Aquino, Francis "Kiko" Pangilinan and Risa Hontiveros also voted against the ratification of the final budget bill in the upper chamber.

Andaya expects the budget to be signed into law by Duterte by next week.

In a statement, the Palace thanked Congress for finally passing the budget bill.

"We are pleased that both Houses of Congress have reconciled their differences and made a unified approbation of the General Appropriations Bill. Indeed there is no obstacle we cannot hurdle if we put our hearts to it, with only the interest of the Filipino people in mind," said Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo.

For its part, the Budget department said that it will continue to be vigilant with budget proceedings.

"As the agency primarily in charge with the conduct of the budget process, we see this as an appreciation of our commitment to ensure the equitable, prudent, transparent and accountable allocation and use of public funds. Rest assured that we will remain vigilant and watchful for the rest of the proceedings until the 2019 General Appropriations Bill is signed into law," the Budget department said in a statement.

'Veto the budget'

Some lawmakers are calling on Duterte to exercise his power to junk certain items in the budget - particularly those which are supposedly "pork" allocations for lawmakers.

"Hopefully, the President and his economic managers will further scrutinize the final version of the budget bill as passed by Congress and exercise his veto power to excise the line items that clearly look and smell like pork," Senator Panfilo Lacson said yesterday.

Citing Legarda, Lacson said that the P160 million allocation for every congressman, the "billion peso insertions" of their colleagues and the P23 billion insertions made by some senators in the Public Works department and other agencies were retained in the final budget bill.

READ: House leader confirms proposal to give each congressman P160M in 2019 budget

However, Lacson said all funding for flood control projects, particularly dredging and desilting, have been realigned for the purchase of dredging machines and for additional funding for the Health department.

Andaya also supported Lacson's call for Duterte to banish questionable insertions from the budget, but said that they will ask the Supreme Court to clarify a possible veto from the Palace.

He has said that a veto message prepared by Budget Secretary Benjamin "Ben" Diokno will "surely perpetuate … unanswered issues" like the P75-billion additional budget for the Public Works department and the alleged flood control "scam."

Andaya has alleged that flood control projects in the budget favored the in-laws of Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno - a charge which Diokno has repeatedly denied.

Drilon also denied that each senator will receive P3 billion allocations each in the budget.

Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles assured that "the President will know what to do" if there is anything illegal and irregular in the proposed 2019 budget.

"The President, and perhaps with the assistance of Secretary Ben Diokno, will go through each and every page of the budget. We will go through each and every item," Nograles said Friday in a Malacañang press briefing.

The Philippine government has been operating under a reenacted budget since the start of the year due to Congress' failure to pass the budget before the end of 2018 over various allegations about the supposed existence of "pork" or discretionary funds for lawmakers, and other allegedly anomalous items in the budget.

AJ Montesa, a researcher and analyst from the Center for Economic Reforms, said it is difficult to validate Lacson and Andaya's claims regarding the budget because the budgetary process is not always transparent.

"At this point it's very hard to say, it's very hard to validate. We have to take them essentially at their word when it comes to these things," he said.

He added that the so-called insertions in the budget may not necessarily be pork barrel, which was outlawed by the Supreme Court in 2013, as long as it is placed to make the budget more responsive to the needs of the people and not just to benefit politicians' interests.

The perceived inaction of Congress on the budget reportedly "dismayed" Duterte, while its delayed passage also hit the salary increases for government workers scheduled for this year.

The Commission on Elections also recently cautioned that if the government continues to operate on the same budget from 2018, teachers who would be on poll duty for the May elections might not get paid.

Economic managers warned that a reenacted budget will lead to delays in government projects and may negatively impact the economy.

Montesa said it will cause more harm if the government continues operating under a reenacted budget.

"It's not responsive to what Congress would really like to happen in the year. It will have an effect on how the government will be able to deliver public goods and services. So it will affect the administration's ability to implement its programs," he said.

CNN Philippines Correspondents Joyce Ilas, Xianne Arcangel and Rex Remitio, Multi-platform Writer Xave Gregorio, and Digital Producer Luchi de Guzman contributed to this report.