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.