By Charmaine A. Tadalan, Reporter
THE BICAMERAL Conference Committee on Wednesday approved next year’s P4.5-trillion national budget, which is aimed at supporting economic recovery after a record recession due to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.
The bicameral conference committee report on the General Appropriations Act of 2021 was ratified by the House of Representatives and the Senate on Wednesday evening. The budget bill will then be sent to President Rodrigo R. Duterte for his signature before Christmas.
The Bicameral Conference Committee agreed to increase the allocation for the health sector by 42% to P287.47 billion, from the P203.1 billion originally proposed by the Budget department under the National Expenditure Program (NEP). The funds will go to the Department of Health (DoH), Philippine Health Insurance Corp. and healthcare personnel, among others.
“When the NEP was prepared, wala pang usapan sa vaccine, maliit lang ang allocation (there was no talk of a vaccine, and the allocation was small). So we had to adjust,” Senator Juan Edgardo M. Angara said in a briefing live streamed on Facebook, Wednesday.
Mr. Angara said one of the challenges was to source funds for the COVID-19 vaccine, which will likely be distributed by mid-2021.
Under the budget, P72.5 billion will be set aside for the implementation of a COVID-19 vaccine program. Of this, P2.5 billion is under the DoH, while the remaining P70 billion will be unprogrammed funds.
The amount is lower than the Senate-approved P83-billion allocation for vaccines, which includes P8 billion under DoH budget and P75 billion in unprogrammed funds for vaccine procurement, distribution and storage.
Mr. Angara, joined by Appropriations Chairman and ACT-CIS Rep. Eric G. Yap, was speaking after the bicameral panel approved the reconciled version of the spending plan.
He said an advance copy of provisions of the budget has been sent to the Department of Budget and Management while the Executive branch awaits the enrolled copy, signed by both Senate President Vicente C. Sotto III and Speaker Lord Allan Jay Q. Velasco.
The chambers are working to avoid a repeat of the 2019 budget scenario that led to the reenactment of the 2018 budget for over four months. The delay stemmed from impasse between the House and the Budget department, and later with the Senate. The 2019 budget was also reenacted for less than a week in 2020, after President Rodrigo R. Duterte signed the 2020 budget only on Jan. 6.
The largest share of the 2021 budget goes to the education sector with P708.18 billion, in line with the Constitution. The education sector’s budget, however, was 6.12% lower than initially proposed under the NEP.
The second-largest chunk goes to the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) with P694.82 billion, up by 4.12%, as the government ramps up infrastructure projects to drive the sluggish economy.
Gross domestic product (GDP) slumped by 11.5% in the third quarter, after a 16.9% contraction in the second quarter pushed the country into its first recession in nearly three decades.
“Education sector is always highest under the Constitution. Infrastructure because a lot of projects, as we mentioned earlier, were not fully funded under the 2020. So, a lot of those were carried over,” Mr. Angara said.
Mr. Yap said the DPWH budget will include funding for the construction of additional COVID-19 quarantine facilities and repair of roads damaged when a string of typhoons hit the country last month.
The bicameral panel also agreed to increase the budget of the Department Labor and Employment (DoLE) by 33.1% to P36.6 billion, the Department of Social Welfare and Development by 3.19% to P176.65 billion, while the Transportation department’s budget was cut by 39.1% to P87.44 billion.
“We also increased ’yung mga job programs for temporary employment, may mga programs ang DoLE d’yan and we also increased DFA (Department of Foreign Affairs) and DoLE ’yung repatriation funds nila because we are expecting OFWs (Overseas Filipino Workers) to return,” Mr. Angara said.
Also among the agencies with the largest budget were the Department of Interior and Local Government (P247.5 billion), Department of National Defense (P205.47 billion), Department of Agriculture (P68.6 billion) and the Judiciary (P44.1 billion).
Mr. Angara assured the final version has itemized provisions, in accordance with the Supreme Court ruling, declaring lump sum appropriations as unconstitutional.
“We avoided lump sum as much as possible, we tried to itemize them… secondly, there’s no, in terms of pork barrel, there’s no post-enactment identification or participation on the part of legislators,” he said.
The panel also did away with the provision, allowing the Commission on Elections (Comelec) to waive procurement safeguards for the 2022 elections.
Further, the 2021 budget will provide for the implementation of new laws, such as the law granting medical scholarship and chalk allowance for public teachers, and the creation of the Philippine Space Agency.