Budget hurdles 2nd, 3rd reading in Senate

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WITH 21 affirmative votes, the  Senate on  Wednesday approved on  second and third reading the P5.268-trillion budget bill for 2023, which the Palace had certified as urgent.

The voting proceeded to third reading after the majority overruled Minority Leader Koko Pimentel who wanted to postpone it to Monday, saying the certification from Malacañang did not specify a public calamity or emergency.

“Absent such reason [calamity or emergency] the certification has no leg to stand on to justify dispensing the rule,” said Pimentel, invoking the 3-day gap required between the second and third reading on legislative measures.

The P5.268-trillion budget bill embodied in House Bill 448 appropriates funds for government operations from January 1 to December 31, 2023.

It will now go to a bicameral panel of senators and congressmen tasked to reconcile conficting provisions in the two budget versions separately passed by the Senate and the House earlier on third reading.

Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri vowed to spread out over at least two 5-day work weeks the budget deliberations next year, acknowledging the difficulty of both senators and Senate staff in tackling multiple agency budgets in one day, sometimes holding marathon sessions of from 12 to 16 hours.

The second and third reading vote missed by two days the earlier projection by Sen. Juan Edgardo Angara, the 2013 budget’s main sponsor, but the Senate still expects to meet its timelines as set with the House of Representatives, in order for the 19th Congress to have a budget sent to Malacañang and signed into law in December.

Seventeen senators were designated members of the bicameral panel, with Finance Committee chief Juan Edgardo Angara chairing the Senate contingent. Members are Senators Pia Cayetano, Loren Legarda, Imee Marcos, Cynthia Villar, JV Ejercito, Ronald dela Rosa, Sherwin Gatchalian, Bong Go, Risa Hontiveros,  Mark Villar, Alan Peter Cayetano, Chiz Escudero, Nancy Binay, Grace Poe, Francis Tolentino and Jinggoy Estrada.

Earlier, Minority Leader Pimentel also pointed out that the budget is not really P5.268 trillion and to state it as such is misleading. Manifesting his reservation that “the presentation of the budget is not accurate,” Pimentel noted that the budget tucks in P588 billion in unprogrammed expenditures, which he stressed must be included in the computation. “So, actually the increase on the budget year on year is not 4 percent, it is actually 11 percent.”

He also lamented that the lump sums are still found in it, the most famous being the confidential and intelligence funds (CIF) that he had actively opposed not just for their sheer magnitude, but because the CIFs of civilian agencies not traditionally doing security work—such as the Office of the Vice President and Department of Education—are growing bigger. Pimentel said having too many CIF items in the budget ties the hands of state auditors.

“Given the current definition of what a confidential fund is, civilian agencies cannot be justifiable recipients of such funds,” Pimentel stressed.

However, he eventually voted in the affirmative on third reading, and pointed out several “good features” of the appropriations bill.

First, he said, it gives priority to agriculture, with the Department of Agriculture budget increasing by 44 percent.

It also “observes the constitutional priority” to education and social services; and gives ample support to the health sector.

“For the first time, we have a budget for the [newly created] Department of Migrant Workers [DMW],” he said.

The budget bill “also attempts to help LGUs [local government units],” Pimentel noted.

While he had repeatedly done his work as fiscalizer while the budget was being deliberated on, Pimentel concluded that the “attitude should be to give it the benefit of the doubt,” it being the Marcos administration’s first full-year budget.

Deputy Minority Leader Risa Hontiveros said she will submit her explanation of vote in writing.