MANILA -- Voting 296-3-0, the House of Representatives on Wednesday approved on the third and final reading House Bill 8980, or the proposed General Appropriations Act or the government's 2024 budget without changes, leaving announced realignments of surveillance funds left to a small group of House leaders.
The eleventh hour commitment by congressional leaders to realign the confidential and intelligence funds of civilian agencies, including Vice President Sara Duterte's OVP and Department of Education, to agencies tasked with securing the West Philippine Sea has yet to be written into the budget bill because no amendments were proposed during the period of amendments.
Instead, the plenary session, consistent with tradition, created a small committee tasked to process numerous amendments to the annual spending plan.
The output of that committee is expected to be reflected in the final copy of the bill that will be submitted to the Senate for action. Since the House can not add to the budget ceiling of P5.768 trillion imposed by the executive, it will have to fund adjustments by taking funds away from other agencies.
The House approved HB 8980 on 2nd reading subject to the output of that small committee.
The House elected Appropriations Committee Chair Elizaldy Co, his Senior Vice Chair Stella Luz Quimbo, Majority Leader Manuel Jose Dalipe and Minority Leader Marcelino Libanan to the Small Committee which has to finish its work so the budget can be submitted to the Senate in time for the resumption of Congressional sessions in November.
Kabataan Rep. Raoul Manuel tried to stop the voting on 3rd and final reading by raising a point of order but he was declared out of order by the presiding officer and his microphone was cut off.
"All things considered, ang certification na ito ay mahina, inconsistent at mapang abuso. " Manuel said. "Pinatayan pa po ako ng mic, nakakabastos naman sa mamamayan."
Abang Lingkod Party List Rep. Joseph Stephen Paduano moved to strike out Manuel's comment which he declared was unparliamentary.
"The word bastos is not allowed in this House," Paduano said.
The House was able to approve the spending plan from 2nd to final reading Wednesday before the House adjourned for a break running from September 30, 2023 - November 5, 2023 because President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. certified to the necessity of its immediate passage.
-- BUDGET IN LINE WITH PH DEVELOPMENT PLAN --
"We are confident that every centavo reflects the overarching targets of ushering economic transformation towards inclusivity and sustainability and is in line with the administration’s medium-term fiscal framework, the 8-point socioeconomic agenda, and the Philippine Development Plan 2023-2028," Speaker Martin Romualdez said in a statement.
"We underscored the need for agencies to abide by the strict accounting and auditing rules governing the handling and release of such funds, and emphasized the need to safeguard their efficient and responsible utilization," Romualdez said.
The Speaker maintained that the approval of the 2024 GAB stands as a testament to the House’s commitment to the welfare of the Filipino people.
“Sa pagpasa natin ang 2024 [GAB], naging gabay ang mithiin natin na mabigyan ng ginhawa ang buhay ng ating mamamayan,” the Speaker stressed.
“Tiwala ako na hindi lamang makakatulong ang ipinasa nating budget para mapabuti ang kalagayan ng mga Pilipino. Susi rin ito para mag-tuloy-tuloy ang ating pagbangon tungo sa mas magandang kinabukasan.”
The Speaker thanked his fellow legislators, especially members of the minority bloc, for their diligent efforts.
“I would also like to acknowledge the contribution of the members of the minority bloc, without which we would not have been able to evaluate, scrutinize, and dissect the national budget and disentangle a number of legislative intricacies that challenge this august chamber every session day. What the minority bloc puts forth unto the process of lawmaking is truly essential and valued,” the Speaker said.
The Speaker's office said in a press release that the proposed 2024 national budget is 9.5 percent higher than this year’s budget of P5.267 trillion, and is equivalent to 21.7 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.
It also said that the education sector receives the largest allocation at P924.7 billion, including funds for the Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education program, textbooks, and feeding programs.
"The Department of Education sees a 5.37 percent increase to P758.6 billion," the Speaker's Office said in a press release.
"Infrastructure priorities include the North-South Commuter Railway System and Metro Manila Subway Project Phase 1. The Department of Public Works and Highways gets P822.2 billion with allocations for road improvement. The Department of Transportation's budget doubles to P214.3 billion, focusing on mass transport and rail systems," the Speaker's Office also said.
"Agriculture receives P181.4 billion, supporting rice, corn, and high-value crops production. The Department of Health gets P306.1 billion, while the Department of Social Welfare and Development sees a 5.2 percent increase to P209.9 billion. The Department of National Defense's budget rises by 14.16 percent to P232.2 billion," the Speaker's Office added.
-- 'BLANK CHECK' --
In her Turno En Contra Speech, House Deputy Minority Leader France Castro slammed the approved spending plan as a blank check.
"Nasayang lang ang pagkakataong ito sa pagpasa ng pambansang badyet para sa taong 2024 na halos walang pagbabago sa pinanukala ng administrasyong Marcos, at walang substansyal na kaibahan sa mga badyet ng mga nakaraang taon. Pinapasa nga natin ito ngayong gabi nang wala tayong hawak na kopya, na tila pinapapirmahan sa atin ang isang higit 5.7 trillion-peso check habang nakapiring ang ating mga mata," Castro said.
Castro says the budget should have the following:
- Sufficient funding for programs that provide direct services to the people such as health, education, and housing, and subsidies, aid, and social protection for the poor and vulnerable as well as urgent budgetary and policy attention to the ailing sectors of agriculture and industries;
- Sufficient and sure funding for the salary adjustment of government employees;
- Transparency and accountability over public funds, which includes zero confidential funds and reasonable intelligence funds for agencies.
Castro also called for clearly specific and itemized budgeting with discretionary funds and lump sums kept to the barest, most necessary minimum.
"This could also free around P104 billion including the CIF to be spent for the above mentioned two points," Castro said.
Castro also wants to tank the ambitious Build Better More Program, which she said could free up to P1.42 trillion to be realigned for productive expenditures such as policies and programs that will ensure stronger food security, domestic employment, and national industrialization.
House Minority Leader Marcelino Libanan gave his own critique of the budget but he too congratulated his colleagues for their quick action on the budget.
Libanan in particular slammed agency heads who he claimed undermined the congressional power of the purse.
"If it were really so that unto this House belongs the power of the purse, why then are the strings of the purse in the hands of Department Secretaries? It is they who give us reasons and excuses, and make us believe that a project is not feasible, is not viable, is not a priority of the Administration. They even defy marching orders of the Chief Executive," Libanan said.
Gabriela Rep. Arlene Brosas voted against the bill, citing among her reasons, the lack of a clear discussion about amendments.
"Mr. Speaker, bumoboto ng NO ang Gabriela Women’s Party sa panukalang 2024 badyet na ito na P5.768 trilyon – na ipinasa sa huling pagbasa na walang klarong diskusyon ng mga amyenda. 'Agenda for Prosperity' daw ang tema, pero sa aktwal ay Adyenda para sa selective na kasaganahan ng iilan – lalo yung mabibiyayaan ng confidential funds," she said.
Brosas also took issue with the funds under the President's direct control.
"Nasa P281 bilyon naman ang unprogrammed funds sa susunod na taon na sa esensya ay standby pork barrel ng Pangulo, kabilang ang P50 bilyon na Support for Infrastructure Program and Social Program (SIPSP) na karaniwang pondo para sa korapsyon. Popondohan ang unprogrammed funds ng sobrang koleksyon ng buwis at karagdagang utang, at hindi ito sinasaklaw ng pagsusuri ng Commission on Audit (COA)," Brosas said.
"Bukod dito, limpak-limpak na pork ang nasa direktang pasya ng Pangulo at Deprtment of Budget and Management kung saan-saan gugugulin. Lolobo ito ng 42.5% o P739.1 bilyon sa taong 2024 mula P518.7 bilyon ngayong 2023. Kasama na dito ang magarbong travel pork ng Pangulo na dumoble at tumaas ng 101%," she added.
"Pinalobo patungong P1.4 billion ang travel allowance ang Presidente, pero kinaltasan naman ang repatriation programs para sa mga migranteng Pilipino. Nabawasan pa nga ang pondo na may kinalaman sa repatriation ng mga migranteng Pilipino mula P15.4 bilyon ngayong 2023 tungong P14.8 bilyon sa 2024 - kahit lumalala ang krisis at instabilidad sa maraming bansa," Brosas also said.
Lagman, in voting yes to the bill, also expressed some reservations, calling for the realignment of surveillance funds to social services and limiting intelligence funds to the barest minimum and to agencies with security mandates.
"Remove the CIF from agencies whose respective principal mandates have no affinity with or nexus to these secret funds, Reallocate the CIF to education, health, and other social services, Limit the amount of CIF even in the agencies entitled to such funds, Restore the fund for the construction of the Memorial/Museum/Library/Compendium in honor of the human rights violations victims (HRVVs) during the Marcos martial law regime pursuant to RA No. 10368. Restore the budget cuts of SUCs, particularly the UP System and Redefine the utilization of the contingent fund," Lagman said.