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Monday, December 11, 2017 28° Cloudy

Solons can resolve their budget differences

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Congress holds  its last regular session  this year on December 13  before going on its Christmas recess on December 15. In these next few days, our senators and congressmen have to resolve their differences on the National Budget for 2018. Or, leaders  of  the House of Representatives have warned, the 2017 National Budget will have to be reenacted.

That  means  so many of the programs planned for 2018 – notably the major infrastructure  projects under “Build, Build, Build” – would  have  to be  held  until funds can  be provided, perhaps in supplemental budget.

As early as  last September 12,  the House had approved  a national  budget  of R3.767 trillion.  Two months  later,  on November 29,  the Senate approved  its  own version  of the budget  bill.  It had made two big changes.

The first was R50.7 billion  that  the  Senate removed from the budget of the Department  of Public Works and Highways for Road  Right of Way (RROW) payments in projects  in Region 12  —  South Cotabato,  Cotabato City,  North Cotabato,  Sultan Kudarat,  Sarangani,  and General Santos  City (SOCCSKSARGEN). Nine congressmen from the region have charged that  numerous  transactions involving  billions  of pesos concerning right-of-way claims were tainted with irregularities.

The second major  funding  removed by the Senate were  R900 million  for the Philippine National Police (PNP) campaign against  drugs  and R500 million  for the Department of  Interior and Local Government (DILG) for its own drugs  campaign.  The Senate realigned the funds  to  housing  for policemen and soldiers.

The first involves  the issue of corruption  and Justice Secretary  Vitaliano  Aguirre II  said  the government will  have to investigate the  right-of-way claims which are possibly  tainted with irregularities. As for the second, the senators  see no reason  to give the PNP R900 million  for  its anti-drugs  campaign  since President Duterte has assigned  the  Philippine Drug  Enforcement  Agency (PDEA) to lead that program.

House  Speaker  Pantaleon  Alvarez  said they will defend the House version of the budget bill despite the risk of having a reenacted budget for 2018.  Sen. Loren Legarda,  chairman  of  the Senate  Finance Committee, however,  believes the bicameral conference committee will be able  to  resolve  the differences between the two chambers.

The differences are not  really  that  difficult  to  resolve.  Release  of  the RROW funds could be made subject to the findings of an ongoing investigation. As for the PNP anti-drugs  funding,  President  Duterte  has restored its full participation  in the anti-drugs  campaign, although PDEA remains in the lead.

Senator  Legarda is confident that when  the senators and congressmen meet in the bicameral conference  committee on the budget  on December 11 or 12, they will come up with the 2018 National Budget bill  ready  for signing by the President  before the year ends. We share her  confidence.

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