House okays budget in marathon session

The House of Representatives under the leadership of Speaker Lord Allan Velasco on Friday night approved on third and final reading the P4.5 trillion national budget for 2021, reaffirming its commitment to pass the highest quality budget that would help Filipinos and the economy rebound, reset and recover from the adverse impact of COVID-19.

House okays budget in marathon session
Speaker Lord Allan Velasco and Majority Leader Martin Romualdez are joined by colleagues and House staffmembers in celebrating the passage of the P4.5-trillion national budget bill during a marathon session on Friday night Oct. 16, 2020.
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Capping four days of marathon deliberations, a total of 257 legislators voted in favor of House Bill 7727 or the 2021 General Appropriations Bill (GAB). Only six voted against the measure and no one abstained.

“It is an extraordinary budget for extraordinary times. There is so much at stake here: our health, the economy, jobs and livelihood, food security, the education of our children, and much more,” Velasco said.

He expressed his gratitude to the President for “taking a principled, decisive leadership” in calling for the special session, which allowed House members to further scrutinize the agency budgets and to thresh out issues relevant to each department and concerned sector.

“We have provided every representative the opportunity to raise issues, clarify any misconceptions, and recommend how we can make the budget truly responsive to our current and pressing needs and conditions,” he said.

“Every member of this institution has something to contribute and deserves to be heard. That we can do better by listening to one another and working together, for our people deserve nothing less,” Velasco added.

At the same time, Velasco said he was proud of the 2021 GAB for being “truly reflective and responsive to the needs of our people.”

The agencies which received the biggest allocations were as follows: Department of Education, P754.4 billion; Department of Public Works and Highways, P667.3 billion; Department of the Interior and Local Government, P246.1 billion; Department of National Defense, P209.1 billion; Department of Health (DOH), P203.1 billion; Department of Social Welfare and Development, P171.2 billion; Department of Transportation, P143.6 billion; Department of Agriculture, P66.4 billion; the Judiciary, P43.5 billion; and Department of Labor and Employment, P27.5 billion.

Albay Rep. Joey Salceda, chairman of the House Ways and Means panel said P893 billion or almost a fifth of the budget is for the country’s COVID-19 response.

Of the P893 billion, P2.5 billion will be for the procurement of anti-COVID-19 vaccines. The Department of Health, however, said the amount is P10 billion short to cover as much as 20 million Filipinos.

House Minority Leader Bienvenido Abante said the amount will only cover 3.9 million Filipinos.

“That is just four percent of our population and way below the number the President (Rodrigo Duterte) wants vaccinated, even for free. Kailangan nating hanapan ito ng pondo,” Abante said in his turno en contra speech.

ACT-CIS Rep. Eric Yap, chairman of the House committee on appropriations, said the chamber will transmit the budget bill to the Senate by Oct. 28, as requested by Senate President Vicente Sotto III.

Senators earlier warned that submitting the money measure after that day would delay the passage of the budget bill.

“We will do as the Senate president wants. We’ll find a way to give them the budget,” Yap said in Filipino, adding that newly elected Speaker Lord Allan Velasco had already committed to submitting copies of the budget by that date.

With the bill’s approval, Yap said the House will form a small committee to accept, evaluate and study proposed amendments from respective government agencies.

Agencies will be given until Monday to submit their proposed amendments, he said.

He said the House will comply with the timeline set by the Senate but stressed congressmen cannot just simply adopt the Senate version of the budget.

Meanwhile, a staunch ally of ousted speaker Alan Peter Cayetano, Camarines Sur Rep. Luis Raymund Villafuerte, warned that a delay in the transmittal of the spending plan to the Senate could raise suspicions that last-minute insertions were being made by the House leadership under Velasco.

Before Cayetano’s ouster, the Velasco camp accused Villafuerte of sowing discord in the House.

On Thursday, Marikina City Rep. Stella Quimbo questioned the P13 billion fund for the coronavirus health response in the Department of Health’s (DOH) proposed budget for 2021.

During the House plenary deliberation on the proposed 2021 budget on Thursday, Quimbo said the DOH had already used P82 billion in total for its pandemic response under the two Bayanihan laws.

She said the P13 billion allotted was too small.

Zamboanga Rep. Manuel Dalipe, the sponsor of the DOH’s budget, said the proposed funding lacks over P10 billion and asked that the said amount be added to the COVID- 19 response budget of the department.

The amount was for the acquisition of vaccines for 20 million people that President Rodrigo Duterte wanted immunized, he said.

The DOH has set aside only a total of P2.5 billion for the procurement of COVID-19 vaccines. But the proposed budget was prepared before Duterte ordered the inoculation of 20 million people in 2021.

During earlier House deliberations Health Undersecretary Myrna Cabotaje said P12.9 billion is needed to procure coronavirus vaccines for 20 million, adding that the government will source the remaining amount through a bank loan.

In a statement, Villafuerte said suspicions about insertions in the budget were heightened by reports that former Camarines Sur congressman Rolando Andaya, a former budget secretary and his political nemesis, has been actively participating behind the scenes in the budget deliberations under the newly installed Velasco speakership.

“Where is their supposed moral high ground now when the senators fret about the undue delay in the House’s submission of the final 2021 GAA bill to the Senate. All along they have made the public believe that the leadership change would ensure the immediate submission by the House of the final copy of the budget to the Senate as soon as the money measure was passed by the chamber at the end of the special session.”

Senators, meanwhile, ratified a committee report on a bill to amend the Organic Agriculture Act of 2010. The bill will make the certification for organic produce cheaper and more accessible.

Sen. Cynthia Villar, chairperson of the Committee on Agriculture, Food, and Agrarian Reform, and principal sponsor of the bill, informed her colleagues in the Senate that the bicameral conference committee has reconciled the disagreeing provisions on Senate Bill 1318 and House Bill 6878.

She noted that RA 10068 requires the certification of organic farms of small farmers by a third-party certifier to facilitate labeling and marketing of products to markets.

But the third party certification costs more than P100,000 per crop, per year, which “creates a very big barrier for small farmers to overcome.”

“The exorbitant cost prevents small farmers from practicing organic farming and also makes organic products expensive for many Filipinos,” Villar added.

Certification through a participatory guarantee system (PGS) would only cost farmers P600 to P2,000, and is now widely adhered to and accepted by international organic movements, such as the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movement.

“Aside from environmental protection, increased farmer profitability is also a great motivation to promote and develop the organic industry. It promotes the use of natural and farm-based resources and inputs like organic fertilizer,” Villar said.

In other developments:

Surigao del Sur Rep. Johnny Pimentel said the lifting of the moratorium on gas exploration in the West Philippine Sea will enhance the nation’s energy security, and he lauded the President’s decision to lift the five-year-old moratorium. “There’s no question the development of the Sampaguita gas discovery in Recto Bank (formerly Reed Bank) is vital to our long-term energy security,” Pimentel said, calling Sampaguita the next Malampaya. Sampaguita’s private developers plan to build a shorter subsea pipeline from Sampaguita to Malampaya, and then Malampaya’s existing 504-kilometer, 24-inch pipeline would be used to deliver all the gas to landfall in Batangas, Pimentel said.

Senators expressed support for a resolution authorizing the use of the excess collection of the Bureau of Customs under the Rice Tariffication Law to help farmers. Senate Agriculture committee chairperson Senator Cynthia Villar and Senators Imee Marcos, Nancy Binay, Francis Pangilinan and Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri said they want this to be included in the General Appropriations Act.

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