Velasco delivers: House meets own deadline to pass 2021 budget despite leadership change

Freshly-minted Speaker Lord Allan Velasco ended his first week on the job fulfilling a marching order to pass the proposed 2021 budget before the House takes a break on Friday, October 16. 

Voting 267-6-0, lawmakers approved on 3rd and final reading House Bill (HB) No 7727 or the proposed P4.5-trillion budget for 2021, also known as the General Appropriations Bill (GAB).

"Mr President, we present to you a budget for lives and livelihood. Ito ang tunay na budget ng bayan (I assure you this is the true budget of the nation)," Velasco said in his speech minutes after the budget was passed.

"I assure you and the President that we will not have a reenacted budget by January of next year," Velasco told his colleagues. 

President Rodrigo Duterte himself was concerned the House would not be able to pass the budget on time.

Velasco's rivalry with ousted speaker Alan Peter Cayetano gripped the chamber in the past two months and placed the GAB's timely passage under peril.

On October 6, Cayetano prematurely suspended session and planned to defer the House's 3rd reading approval of the 2021 budget bill to November 16. It was seen as a ploy to bar the takeover of Velasco, who was supposed to share terms with him. 

Angered by his former running mate's plenary stunt, Duterte called the Congress to convene in a special session from October 13 to 16 to ensure the timely passage of the budget.

He also certified the GAB as urgent, waiving the mandatory 3-day interval between a bill's 2nd and 3rd readings.

With Cayetano losing support in the House, Velasco's allies unseated the Taguig congressman in a dramatic coup on Monday, October 12, during an unprecedented session held inside a sports club. (READ: INSIDE STORY: Cayetano’s hubris turns Batasan into the House of Lord)

They later formalized Velasco's election inside the plenary hall of the Batasang Pambansa on Tuesday, October 13, putting to rest questions on the legality and legitimacy of his ascent to power. 

What's in the budget

The 2021 budget is the Duterte government's first COVID-19 national budget

But as in the past years, the education sector – composed of the Department of Education, state universities and colleges, the Commission on Higher Education, and the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority – would get the lion's share of the proposed 2021 budget at P754.4 billion.

The Department of Public Works and Highways would also receive the largest allocation among agencies at P667.3 billion. The Duterte government is counting on infrastructure as the key to revive the country's recession-hit economy.

The Department of Health's proposed budget for 2021 was set at P203.1 billion. These would go to the procurement of COVID-19 vaccines at P2.5 billion, personal protective equipment at P2.7 billion, GeneXpert cartridges for COVID-19 tests at P1 billion, and P500 million for COVID-19 surveillance efforts.

But the biggest chunk of the proposed DOH budget at about P71.4 billion was still allocated to the corruption-ridden Philippine Health Insurance Corporation, the subject of twin probes in the House and the Senate.

Passed on time, but no amendments yet

But in a bid to swiftly pass HB 7727, the House approved the 2021 budget in toto or without any congressional amendments on Friday.

Instead, Velasco formed a small committee of lawmakers tasked to accept proposed amendments from their colleagues, who have until Monday, October 19, to submit their suggestions.

This committee – whose composition is different from the one previously formed by Cayetano – will then be given two days to consolidate and finalize the realignments under the 2021 budget. 

The members of the House's small committee on the 2021 budget are as follows:

From the majority bloc

  • Majority Leader Martin Romualdez, Leyte 1st District
  • House committee on appropriations chair Eric Yap, ACT-CIS
  • Michael John "Jack" Duavit, Rizal 1st District 
  • Jose Enrique "Joet" Garcia II, Bataan 1st District
  • Joey Salceda, Albay 2nd District
  • Elenita "Eileen" Ermita Buhain, Batangas 1st District
  • Bernadette Herrera, Bagong Henerasyon
  • Sharon Garin, AAMBIS-OWA
  • Salvador "Doy" Leachon, Oriental Mindoro 1st District
  • Xavier Jesus "XJ" Romualdo, Camiguin
  • Edgar Sarmiento, Samar 1st District
  • Luisa Lloren Cuaresma, Nueva Vizcaya

From the minority and independent blocs

  • Stella Quimbo, Marikina City 2nd District
  • Edcel Lagman, Albay 1st District

The final amendments can only be officially applied to the 2021 budget once it reaches the bicameral conference committee, which will be convened after the GAB passes through the Senate. 

House committee on appropriations chair Eric Yap already assured senators they will be receiving a soft copy of the GAB and the House's proposed amendments by October 28. 

"So para sa akin, wala na po akong nakikitang reason para ma-reenact at ma-delay ang budget dahil November 9 po sila mag-start ng kanilang session," said Yap minutes before the budget was passed. 

(So for me, I see no reason for a delay and a reenactment of the budget because the Senate will be holding their session on November 9.)

Unlike the 2021 budget bill, the 2020 budget is not responsive to the COVID-19 crisis. Reenacting it for the coming year would constrain government efforts to combat the effects of the crippling pandemic. 

The Duterte administration had to operate on a reenacted budget for the first 3 months of 2020, after the President failed to sign the GAB on time. At the time, the Congress passed the budget on December 11, 2019, but Duterte signed it only on January 6, 2020. – Rappler.com

Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda writes about politics and women’s rights for Rappler. She covers the House of Representatives and the Office of the Vice President. Got tips? Send her an email at mara.cepeda@rappler.com or shoot her a tweet @maracepeda.

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