MANILA (UPDATE) - The Senate and House of Representatives on Wednesday ratified the P4.5-trillion 2021 national budget, with the former saying the new spending bill would enable government to enact "ramped up COVID-19 response" programs and allow "fresh investments for our health facilities."
The 2021 national budget will enable government to respond better to the COVID-19 pandemic and fund new laws enacted this year, Senate Committee on Finance chair Sen. Sonny Angara said in his sponsorship speech in plenary.
In ratifying the budget, the House adopted the Bicameral Conference Committee Report on the General Appropriations Act.
“This budget reflects the serious commitment of the Duterte government to defeat COVID-19 and bring the economy back on track,” House Speaker Lord Allan Velasco said in a statement.
The latest development on the proposed budget will bring Congress one step closer to sending the bill to President Rodrigo Duterte for signature.
"Our original intent remains intact for the 2021 budget: to improve our response to the COVID-19 pandemic, to assist those not only stricken by calamities but also by poverty, disease and homelessness," Angara said.
Congress also increased the calamity fund for next year "to set aside more funds to empower the government to respond and save more lives in the face of national disasters," he said.
Sen. Grace Poe lauded the ratification of the 2021 budget, saying its timely passage would "will fuel the revival of the economy."
"It seeks to respond to real needs for better health protection, equal access to quality education, efficient transportation and infrastructure and inclusive social protection," Poe said in a statement.
Velasco said the budget includes a P70 billion allocation for the purchase of COVID-19 vaccines, its storage, transportation and distribution.
The Department of Education (DepEd) gets the biggest chunk of the 2021 national budget with P708.18 billion, followed by the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) with P694.82 billion.
The Department of Health (DOH) - which is tasked to procure COVID-19 vaccines next year - will get the third largest share of the budget with P287.47 billion.
The other agencies that complete the top ten recipients of public funds next year are as follows:
- Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) - P247.50 billion
- Department of National Defense (DND) - P205.47 billion
- Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) - P176.65 billion
- Department of Transportation (DOTr) - P87.44 billion
- Department of Agriculture (DA) - P68.62 billion
- Judiciary - P44.10 billion
- Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) - P36.60 billion
House Appropriations Committee Chair Eric Go Yap said in a statement that the bicameral conference committee approved several changes introduced by the House which include:
- additional funding of P44.8 billion for the “Build, Build, Build” program under the DPWH;
- additional P2 billion for the procurement of personal protective equipment;
- additional P434.4 million for the health department's Health Facilities Enhancement Program;
- additional P462 million for the DOH’s Medical Health Assistance Program;
- additional P100 million for the DOH's mental health program;
- additional P3.177 billion for DOLE, majority of which is for the Office of the Secretary’s Tulong Panghanapbuhay sa Ating Disadvantaged or Displaced Workers Program or TUPAD
Yap said that the bicam also increased the budget for Livelihood and Emergency Employment Program and the Government Internship Program (GIP) by P5.09 billion, bringing its total to P19 billion.
According to the statement, the bicam also allotted P1.6 billion to DSWD for its alternative family care program, which is designed to provide protective services for individuals, families and communities in difficult circumstances.
Opposition Sen. Francis "Kiko" Pangilinan backed the ratification of the 2021 budget "with reservations."
"We regret that a number of significant items are still biased towards pre-COVID priorities," he said.
"Health, economic stimulus should have been given more funding over security and infrastructure," he said.
Among the senators, only Sen. Panfilo Lacson voted against the bicameral committee report on the 2021 national budget, citing the questionable increase in the DPWH's budget.
Lacson earlier flagged "redundant" allocations for multi-purpose halls in far-flung areas. But instead of having these items removed from the spending bill, more funds were allotted for the construction of these structures during the pandemic.
"I'm manifesting my dissenting vote for the bicameral conference report," he said.
"I have to be frank, nadagdagan pa yung multi-purpose [buildings] (the funding for multi-purpose buildings was even increased)," he added.
Lacson also criticized the bicameral panel's decision to reduce the allocation for the National Broadband Program due to the Department of Information and Communications Technology's (DICT) low utilization rate.
The DICT's utilization rate is at 21 percent, but the DPWH also has also been underspending over the years with a "pitiful" utilization rate of 37.8 percent, Lacson noted.
"If that's the logic, [bakit] in-increase nila ng P28 billion yung DPWH?" he said.
(If that's the logic, why did they increase the DPWH's budget by P28 billion?)
"What's good for the goose should also be good for the gander," he said.
Angara said the House panel decided to "withdraw" their proposal to increase the DICT's budget for the laying of broadband cables across the country.
Angara acknowledged Lacson's point, but noted that the bicameral report on the 2021 budget was completed through a "collegial" decision.
"There are some missed opportunities here," Angara told Lacson.
"We regret that some of his honor's (Lacson's) very good augmentations to the budget were not carried in full... We really tried.... We will try better next year," said Angara.
SENATORS QUESTION VACCINE PLAN
Several lawmakers also raised queries about the executive branch's plan in the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines next year.
"It's a herculean task. If you want normalcy, if you want to go back to confidence in the economy... then everything must be done to address the health concern," Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto said.
"Unfortunately, those responsible for the vaccine procurement or development of the plan to inoculate our population were not able to come and see you and the bicam members," he said, noting that Congress has yet to hear details about the administration's plan on how many Filipinos would be inoculated by next year.
A DOH official and Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque had earlier said that the initial rollout of the COVID-19 vaccination program targets 24.6 million Filipinos, prioritizing health care workers and senior citizens, among others.
Sen. Pia Cayetano noted that apart from the COVID-19 vaccines, the government also needs to spend for the needles that would be used for its administration, as well as the training of medical personnel who would facilitate the vaccination program.
"It is possible that within the year, we will have to come back with a supplemental budget," Recto said.
"The comfort level is not very high that we can achieve a certain degree of confidence in so far as our public health is concerned... I guess we just have to look up at the sky and pray," Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon added.
The 2021 budget was ratified about 3 weeks before the current spending law expires by the end of the year.
Congress is expected to transmit the fresh spending bill to Malacañang for Duterte's signature.
Yap from the lower chamber had said that printing of the approved version of the budget usually takes as long as 10 days because of the volume of the document.
Once printed, the final copy would be signed by Velasco, Senate President Vicente Sotto III, and ultimately, by Duterte before the holidays, said Yap.
According to Velasco, the enrolled bill on the budget will be forwarded to Malacanang next week.
Duterte has the prerogative to approve the entire budget prepared by Congress, but he may also opt to veto several items inserted by lawmakers.
Should the President fail to sign the 2021 budget into law by Dec. 31, the government will be forced to spend based on the 2020 budget until he approves the new General Appropriations Act.
The House, meanwhile, approved on second reading a bill extending the validity of the 2020 national budget until Dec. 31, 2021.
It began plenary deliberations on House Bill 6656 as submitted by the Committee on Appropriations. It was then amended by substitution by the plenary with an unnumbered substitute bill.
Earlier in the day, Yap and Angara bared plans to extend the validity of this year's budget until next year to allow the completion of projects derailed by the pandemic, as well as of the Bayanihan 2.
Without the extension, the unused funds allocated under Bayanihan 2 will revert to the National Treasury once Congress adjourns session for the Yuletide holidays.
The same thing will happen to the unused funds under the 2020 budget, after December 31, 2020.