Duterte blocks Congress insertions under 2021 budget

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President Rodrigo Duterte (FILE PHOTO)

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, December 29) — President Rodrigo Duterte rejected some items under the 2021 national budget over questions on legality.

Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque bared on Tuesday a list of budget provisions which were vetoed by the President a day after the ₱4.5-trillion spending plan was signed into law as Republic Act No. 11518. In his veto message, Duterte said the provisions either go against the Constitution or do not relate to particular appropriations.

Among these is the power of some government agencies to retain and spend the revenues they collect. Duterte said that as a general rule, all income of agencies should accrue to the national government's general fund, "unless otherwise authorized by a separate substantive law." Roque also explained this will ensure expenditure will be in accordance with the national budget.

Duterte also turned down a special provision that authorizes the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority to use excess dividends, saying the law mandates all government-owned or controlled corporations to declare and remit at least half of their annual net earnings to the national government, unless in the interest of national economy and general welfare.

The President likewise vetoed a number of other items listed under "inappropriate provisions."

Citing the issue of national security, Duterte included in the list a provision requiring the submission of reports on the use of intelligence funds to Congress.

"I am duty bound to protect national security and maintain public safety, as well as ensure peace and order at all times," Duterte said. "Hence, all activities involving gathering that have a direct impact on national security and public safety shall be reported directly to me."

He added that these include reports on intelligence funds, which he noted are confidential or classified information.

Also labeled as "inappropriate" is a provision on the Technical Education and Skill Development Authority's use of savings. Duterte noted that under existing laws, TESDA may not be granted authority to transfer appropriations without his approval.

He also vetoed provisions on the Department of Agrarian Reform's condonation of interest, penalties and surcharges; the Department of Trade and Industry's credit mediation services; the Department of Transportation's public utility vehicle modernization program; and the Public Attorney's Office's forensic laboratory division. According to the President, these provisions do not relate to particular appropriations in the national budget.

"This year's national budget is designed to enable our country to continue to rebound and recover from the deleterious effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, among other challenges," Duterte wrote in his veto message.

While it is "quite unique" for being crafted amid the health crisis, "it remains geared towards our ultimate aspiration for the Filipino people — ‘matatag, maginhawa, at panatag na buhay [a steadfast, comfortable, and peaceful life]’ building upon the gains and lessons from past years," Duterte added.

The President last issued a veto message for the 2019 budget, covering ₱95.3 billion worth of infrastructure projects which were deemed "not within programmed priorities."

Although not a direct veto, Roque said Duterte blocked several projects inserted by members of Congress during the budget hearings. These items were not evaluated by regional development councils or by the National Economic and Development Authority.

Citing Duterte's veto message, these projects shall be subject to the national government protocols on cash programming, prudent fiscal management, and other rules and regulations before rollout.

"Ito po ay mga proyekto na ipinasok mismo sa Kongreso. Hindi naman po vineto pero ang sabi lang po, dapat ito ay sang-ayon doon sa ating government cash programming," Roque said. "Ang implementation ng mga project na ito ay subject pa rin po sa approval ng ating Presidente based on programmed priorities of the government."

[Translation: These projects were inserted in Congress. The President did not veto them, but he said that these should conform with government cash programming. The implementation of these projects is subject to the approval of the President based on programmed priorities of the government.]

The Duterte government averted a reenacted budget for 2021 as the bill was signed into law before January 1.

The 2021 budget is touted as the recovery budget as it provides additional funding for COVID-19 response and sets a ₱72.5-billion allotment for vaccine purchases. However, only ₱2.5 billion will come from available cash, as the bulk will be funded through loans. 

The spending law also sets aside ₱4.7 billion for the purchase of over 2 million sets of personal protective equipment for health workers amid the pandemic. Another ₱283 million is set aside for the establishment of the Virology Science and Technology Institute of the Philippines to study emerging and re-emerging viruses, and ₱51.56 million is for disease surveillance and monitoring of the coronavirus.

The government will also continue to provide cash aid under the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program, Social Pension for Indigent Senior Citizens, Sustainable Livelihood Program, and the Supplementary Feeding Program.

The education sector will receive the biggest share with ₱751.7 billion, followed by the Department of Public Works and Highways with ₱695.7 billion and the Department of Interior and Local Government at ₱249.3 billion.

The Department of Health will get the fourth-biggest allotment at ₱210.2 billion, up by nearly 20% from this year's funding. Some ₱205.8 billion has been allotted for defense, according to DBM.