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Thursday, April 25, 2024

Senate, House ratify bicam’s version of ₧5.268-T budget

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THE Senate ratified on Monday the P5.268-trillion general appropriations bill for 2023 as approved by a bicameral conference commitee, amid concern raised by Minority Leader Senator Koko Pimentel that this is “actually the country’s first P6-trillion budget” because of the huge (P219 billion) increase in unprogrammed appropriations, and what he called “big swings” or changes made by the bicameral panel version on certain items.

Pimentel and Deputy Minority Leader Risa Hontiveros voted no to the budget bill.

Separately, the House of Representatives ratified the bicameral conference committee report on the 2023 General Appropriations Act.

The 2023 budget will now be transmitted to President Marcos Jr. for his signature. The amendments made to the 2023 budget by the bicameral panel have not been released yet by the House of
Representatives. House Speaker Martin G. Romualdez said the record-high P5.268-trillion 2023 national budget “would keep the country on the growth path.”

Romualdez said the committee’s version of the budget supports the Agenda for Prosperity and eight-point socioeconomic program of the current administration.

“With this budget, which is the first full-year spending plan proposed by the President, we hope to hasten our economic growth, which should benefit our people,” Romualdez said.

The bicameral panel met Monday morning at the Manila Golf and Country Club in Makati City to approve its version of the proposed spending program for next year.

The panel is jointly chaired by Ako Bicol Rep. Elizaldy Co, House appropriations committee chairman, and his Senate counterpart, Sen. Sonny Angara.

Koko: Explain ‘big swings’

Interpellating Finance Committee chairman Angara, Pimentel asked his colleague to provide details of the items that saw these “big swings,” such as the P1.5-billion hike in the budget of the Don Mariano Marcos State University in Ilocos Norte.  Angara explained that the outlay for the State University’s Medical school caused the big increase in budget.

Several other “big swings” or sudden budget hikes inserted at the bicameral level also involved outlays for state universities, mostly pushed by congressmen, explained Angara.

In contrast to the big budget hikes accorded by the bicameral panel, Pimentel also expressed concern over the sharp reductions in outlays of certain agencies, notably the P442-million reduction in the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT); and the P2.2 billion lopped off from the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (Tesda).

Pimentel also lamented the transfer to “unprogrammed appropriations”—meaning, no clear funding source—of the P431 million he had pushed for payment of overdue retirement benefits for employees of the IBC network.

NTF-Elcac

Earlier, Pimentel also expressed concern that the bicameral panel had acted “like a third house” of Congress because it restored the full budget proposed by the Executive for the controversial National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-Elcac), or P10 billion.

Pimentel recalled that while the Executive proposed P10 billion, the House cut this down to P5 billion, and the Senate later concurred in this huge cut.  Lawmakers at the time were concerned over persistent reports that instead of helping formerly rebel-controlled communities transition to peace, the NTF-Elcac would be just like a huge pork barrel for local officials and security agencies, with little transparency and accountability.

Angara, however, explained that the P10-billion budget as initially proposed was not restored by the bicameral panel. The bicameral panel, he said, approved a final P6-billion budget for NTF Elcac; with over P3 billion of the outlay placed under “unprogrammed appropriations.”

To Pimentel’s insistence that the P219-billion hike in unprogrammed appropriations actually bloated the budget to P6-trillion, Angara stressed the long-held fiscal doctrine that unprogrammed appropriations are never counted in the national budget because they are contingent on the availability of funds, usually intended to be financed by loans.

Angara also credited “the Senate leadership and the majority, as well the Speaker of the House,” with shepherding the 2023 GAA, pointing out that “the approved budget bill will ensure that the government would be on track.”

At the same time, the senators prodded an oversight committee to be on guard, suggesting to have “a scorecard so we can monitor; then we can know what targets are not met,” even as they aired hopes that “the budget be implemented well by the Executive.”

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