House members flag 2022 budget for lacking in COVID response allocation

RG Cruz, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Sep 21 2021 07:25 PM

 Senior health workers and frontline employees of the University of Sto. Tomas Hospital join a protest along Espańa Avenue on August 30, 2021, decrying the late release of Special Risk Allowance and other benefits promised to all health frontliners helping in the country’s COVID-19 response. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News/File
Senior health workers and frontline employees of the University of Sto. Tomas Hospital join a protest along Espańa Avenue on August 30, 2021, decrying the late release of Special Risk Allowance and other benefits promised to all health frontliners helping in the country’s COVID-19 response. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News/File


MANILA - Some House members flagged the proposed P5.024 trillion 2022 national budget supposedly for supposedly lacking in COVID-19 response allocation amid the lingering pandemic and being pro-local government.

Lawmakers on Tuesday kicked off plenary deliberations on the 2022 budget and are planning to give their final approval in time for the start on Oct. 1 of the filing of candidacies for next year's elections.

Marikina 2nd District Rep. Stella Luz Quimbo said the 2022 General Appropriations Bill "does not constitute a sufficient COVID response." 

"Walang budget para sa medicine kits, para sa COVID patients na naka-home care. Walang budget para sa SRA (Special Risk Allowances) ng frontliners. Walang budget para sa bakuna. Wala ring budget para sa contract tracing. Hindi rin maliwanag kung sapat ang ayuda compared to proposed COVID response relative to GDP," she said in her interpellation.

(No budget for medicine kits, for COVID-19 patients in home care, for SRA of frontliners, for vaccines, and also for contract tracing. It's also not clear if the aid for COVID-19 response relative to the country's GDP is enough.)

"So hindi talaga COVID budget ang GAB 2022 in its current form para sa akin. Sana mapagtulungan ng ating economic managers at ng Kongreso ang problema na ito.”

(GAB 2022 is not really a COVID budget in its current form for me. I hope our economic managers coordinate with Congress on this problem.)

Quimbo said she wants to propose amendments to the budget, and hopes that the executive branch can support a separate budget should her amendments fail to make the cut in the proposed 2022 budget.

“Kung 'di kaya ma-accomodate ang amendments sa GAB 2022, sana ay maging bukas ang ating economic managers to support a special appropriation under, for example, the Bayanihan 3," she said, referring to the bill which provides for the distribution of emergency cash aid for households in areas under lockdown due to COVID-19.

(If amendments to GAB 2022 can't be accomodated, I hope our economic managers support a special appropriation under, for example, the Bayanihan 3.)

Zamboanga City 2nd District Rep. Manuel Jose Dalipe said during his sponsorship speech of the 2022 budget that the government will spend nearly P400 billion for COVID-19 response. 

“An amount of P395.59 billion has been allocated for COVID-19 response measures including infrastructure investments in this budget," he said.

Quimbo maintained it is insufficient for COVID response.

The bill was also hit for being quite leaning towards LGUs, whose officials usually form the machinery of candidates during election campaigns.

Albay 2nd District Rep. Joey Salceda, who stood in defense of the 2022 budget, admitted it is the "most pro-LGU budget in history" but argued that funds reserved for local governments are not just reserved for internal revenue allotment but also for the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) and financial assistance to local government units (FALGU).

Salceda said the funds allotted to NTF-ELCAC is P28 billion while FALGU has P90.37 billion.

P248 BILLION FOR LATE RELEASE PROJECTS

Meanwhile, Quimbo, with other House members including administration allies, flagged the government for holding on to some P248 billion in projects that have been tagged "for late release" (FLR) in the 2021 budget.

FLR projects refer to items inserted by lawmakers in the national budget that were not part of the original proposals of the Office of the President. 

The government only releases these funds subject to presidential approval and compliance with documentary requirements.

When Quimbo inquired how much FLR projects remain, Salceda said about P248 billion are still pending, of which P135 billion are lodged in the Department of Public Works and Highways.

Quimbo slammed the practice of having SLR projects, pointing out it deprives Congress of the opportunity to override presidential vetoes. 

”Ano po ba ang dahilan kung bakit 'di mai-release ang mga FLR considering again that these are appropriations already approved by Congress and more importantly, not vetoed by the President? Not releasing these appropriations actually invalidates Congress’ power of the purse at masasabi nating unconstitutional ito," she said.

(What is the reason these FLR projects can't be released considering again that these are appropriations already approved by Congress and more importantly, not vetoed by the President? Not releasing these appropriations actually invalidates Congress’ power of the purse and we can say this is unconstitutional.)

"Kung may problema man ang executive sa mga budget items na ito, pwede naman i-veto ng Presidente. Merong ganiyan pong recourse. Nung hindi naman ito vineto, hindi naman nai-release. This is effectively a veto as well, but this time, depriving Congress of its right to overturn the veto."

(If the executive department has a problem with these budget items, the President can veto it. We have that kind of recourse. But when this was not vetoed, it wasn't also released.)

"So this is not only potentially a Constitutional crisis, but more importantly, it also means missed economic activities for growth and for job creation,” the lawmaker said.

Quimbo noted that delaying FLR projects has effects on the economy. 

“Many of these FLRs are for implementation ready projects, meaning ready to employ jobless Filipinos, and there are at least 8.7 million of them," she said.

She urged the government to scrap the practice of keeping FLRs projects.

"Anong dahilan kung bakit tayo may FLR? May commitment po ba tayo na mailalabas na ito para magamit na natin again to generate jobs, and may commitment ba tayo na sa susunod na taon, hindi na magkakaroon ng another round of FLR dahil potentially unconstitutional?" she asked.

(What reason do we have to have FLR projects? Do we have a commitment to release these so we can use them to generate jobs, and do we have a commitment that next year, there won't be another round of FLR since this is potentially unconstitutional?) 

Salceda, an ally of the Duterte administration, ended up joining Quimbo in arguing against FLRs, calling them also unconstitutional.

”Unbelievable... This is the first time I’m defending somebody who is debating it is clear in the Constitution that it's Congress who has the power. You propose, we dispose," he said.

“Certainly, the FLR is unconstitutional and setting parameters to expenditure approved by congress is also unconstitutional,” he added.

Salceda proposed that government should just veto the FLR projects.

"I think in a country like this, in this current state of our nation-building and in this current state of our fight against COVID, you need all these resources. Therefore, you cannot just throw away, otherwise you strip the budget. Then the whole thing becomes contractionary and you just create more COVID," he said.

Quimbo proposed to defer consideration of the 2022 budget until House members get satisfactory answers regarding the FLR projects.

Lawmakers’ projects have often been touched by politicians as achievements during election campaigns.

The practice of tagging projects as FLR came sometime after the Supreme Court outlawed the pork barrel system.

The House has given itself until Sept. 30 to give final approval to the GAB 2022. 

Congress will go on a break from Oct. 1 to Nov. 7 to give way to the filing of candidacies for next year's elections.


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