MANILA - Sen. Panfilo Lacson on Wednesday said the national budget for next year is "as good as [a] reenacted" version of the current year's spending plan after the House leadership abruptly suspended session without transmitting the 2021 budget bill to the Senate.
The House of Representatives was supposed to approve the 2021 budget on final reading and pass it on to the Senate next week, but House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano and his allies have suspended session until next month, a day after Marinduque Rep. Lord Allan Velasco - his rival for the speakership - sought to enforce a term-sharing agreement with him by October 14.
"Maski ipangako nila na it will be passed on time, because of the schedule na napakasikip... good as reenacted na 'yung budget," Lacson told reporters in a virtual press conference.
(Even if they promise it will be passed on time, because the schedule is very tight... the budget is good as reenacted.)
While Cayetano promised Senate leaders to have the 2021 budget transmitted to senators in mid-November, Lacson said it was "impossible" for the spending measure to be enacted into law before the December 31, 2020 deadline.
"There is no way for the Senate na matapos 'yung [to finish the] budget and for Malacañang to sign it before the year ends. Imposible 'yun (That's impossible)," he said.
Under the law, the Senate can only tackle the national budget in plenary after the House approves it on final reading.
The printing of the budget bill alone would take a week, while the Senate needs about 2 weeks to weed out unconstitutional insertions and debate on the spending proposals of all government agencies, Senate President Vicente Sotto III said in a separate interview.
Even if senators manage to pass the 2021 budget on final reading before Christmas, House and Senate representatives still have to meet in a bicameral conference to iron out discrepancies in the measure, he said.
After Congress ratifies the 2021 budget, the executive branch needs about a week or 2 to study, veto line items, and print the final version of the measure before President Rodrigo Duterte can sign it into law.
Lacson said there is no need for the President to call for a special session during Congress' month-long break as the legislative branch only suspended its plenary work, and may resume when majority of its members agree to do so.
Under the law, the President may only call for a special session when Congress is adjourned, not when session in only suspended, Lacson said.
"I don't think it's a good judgment call," Lacson said, referring to Cayetano's decision to suspend House session to evade a possible power grab from Velasco and his allies.
"We cannot sacrifice the national budget. Whatever squabble they have, dapat hindi na nadamay 'yung national budget (the national budget shouldn't be affected)," he said.
Lacson rejected Cayetano's suggestion to either "shorten" the bicameral conference deliberations or send advance copies of partial House amendments to senators.
"Hindi puwede 'yun. Kung unti-unti [ang bigay ng approved amendments], paano kami magde-deliberate ng budget ng unti-unti?" Lacson said.
(That can't be. If they give piecemeal, how do we deliberate?)
"Hindi puwede mag-sponsor 'yung chair ng Senate Committee on Finance ng piecemeal," he said.
(The chair of the Senate Committee on Finance cannot make sponsorships piecemeal.)
Sotto agreed with Lacson's assessment that there is a high possibility that the Philippines would have to use a reenacted budget in 2021.
"We're staring at a 1-month delay... We're really staring at the possibility of a reenacted budget," Sotto said.
Under the law, the current budget expires on December 31, 2020.
Without a new spending law on January 1, 2021, the Philippine government will be forced to spend based on its 2020 budget, which does not include programs designed to help Filipinos cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, and spur economic activities.
Among the 2021 "priorities" that may not be funded after the House feud delayed the budget's passage include health programs, the building of digital infrastructure for distance learning, as well as funding for agriculture and food security projects, Sotto said.
"Key services will be affected. A delay of project implementation would mean missed opportunities," he said.
"Dapat kaming lahat, kaming mga pulitiko, dapat isipin namin muna paano makaka-recover ang bansa sa pandemic agad... kesa sa mga siytwasyon namin sa pulitika," he said.
(All of us politicians, we should look at how the country could recover from the pandemic fast instead of our own political situation.)
Last year, politicking and bickering in the House of Representatives also delayed the passage of the 2020 budget.
The Philippines was forced to operate on a reenacted budget in the first few weeks of 2020, before Duterte finally signed the current spending bill into law in February.
The month and a half delay of the signing of the budget led to slower economic growth for the country in the first quarter of 2020.