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House plans to increase P2.5-billion budget for coronavirus vaccine

The House of Representatives plans to increase the P2.5-billion ($51.43-million) allocation for COVID-19 vaccines in the 2021 national budget bill, House Speaker Lord Allan Velasco said on Monday, October 19.

This is even if the House already passed the 2021 General Appropriations Bill (GAB) on 3rd and final reading on Friday, October 16.

“We saw that one of the things that we should have put more budget in is for the purchase of the vaccines for COVID-19. I think there were only around P2.5 billion that was allotted for that, which actually would just comprise about 3% of the population,” Velasco said in an interview on ANC's Headstart.

“So, definitely, that’s one of the things that we have to add to, mainly because I believe that the President has already announced that he wants 20 million people to be vaccinated,” he added.

The current P2.5 billion allotment for COVID-19 vaccines would only cover around 3 million people, Velasco said.

The House has formed a “small committee” that will make “institutional amendments” to the 2021 GAB before it is printed into several volumes and then handed over to the Senate.

“It is up to the small committee to find out where they can source the funds. That’s actually the job of the small committee,” Velasco said.

The House Speaker said the National Broadband Plan of the Department of Information and Communications Technology must also be made a priority in the budget.

The Department of Education, meanwhile, must be able to give free gadgets to poor students so they can participate in online distance learning – another consideration in amending the budget bill, Velasco said.

Unconstitutional?

Several senators flagged the House’s planned amendments as possibly unconstitutional, as the Constitution states that no amendments shall be made to a bill after its final reading by a chamber of Congress.

“For us in the Senate, and this was already manifested on the floor last week, once it is approved on 3rd and final reading, if the errata are material – hold on, this is no longer consistent with the constitutional process, as they say, of legislation,” Senator Francis Pangilinan said in a DZBB interview on Sunday, October 18.

Any changes after a bill’s passage by a house of Congress must be done during the bicameral conference, when the two houses reconcile their versions’ conflicting provisions, Pangilinan added.

“The small committee would only do institutional amendments – mainly departments and agencies asking for more budgets. That is their job,” Velasco said on Monday.

An issue in the 2021 budget bill that played into the recent standoff between Velasco and Taguig-Pateros Representative and former speaker Alan Peter Cayetano were the allegedly larger allocations for infrastructure projects in Taguig City and Camarines Sur, the bailiwick of Cayetano’s ally, former deputy speaker LRay Villafuerte.

Velasco reiterated his assurance that “there is no pork in the budget.”

“At the end of the day, I always believe in fair and equitable distribution – not really equal for every district but depends on the needs. If the district needs more budget, then definitely they should be given more budget, and if the district doesn’t need a lot of budget, then it will get less,” Velasco said.

But would he reduce the amounts allotted for Taguig City and Camarines Sur?

“We will see,” Velasco replied. “Mainly because right now, we’re just doing a lot of institutional amendments. After that, the Senate will review it also and they will scrutinize, and then comes the (bicameral conference).”

Target: October 28

The new House Speaker also reaffirmed a commitment that the House would hand over the 2021 GAB to the Senate by October 28 or, if not, by the end of the month.

“I had a quick talk with Senate President Sotto and he told me that if we transmitted it on November 5, that would be quite hard for them to finish it on time. So we agreed on October 28 – best efforts of the House – but that October 28 can actually be October 30,” said Velasco.

The House’s passage of the 2021 GAB on Friday capped off a tense, weeks-long standoff between Velasco and Cayetano.

In a bid to block Velasco from taking over the speakership, Cayetano suspended session at the House on October 6 instead of on October 14. This, in effect, pushed back the budget bill’s final reading and passage by a month.

Senators and several House lawmakers worried this would prevent the 2021 GAB from being ratified and enacted on time, and force the government to reenact the 2020 national budget for next year instead.

President Rodrigo Duterte then called on Congress to hold a special session, forcing the House to reconvene. Backed by majority of House members, Velasco replaced Cayetano as speaker on October 13, and then led marathon plenary hearings to pass the budget according to schedule.

Despite this, the House initially planned to hand the 2021 GAB over to the Senate on November 5 – too late, according to several senators including Senate President Vicente Sotto III. Senators need time to study the bill – printed in several thick volumes – before Congress resumes session on November 16. Printing the GAB will take a whole week.

The Senate has decided to resume session a week earlier – on November 9 – to make headway in its work on the budget bill.

On Thursday, October 15, Sotto told reporters that he got Velasco to agree to transmit the budget bill by October 28.

If the government fails to enact the 2021 GAB before 2020 ends, it will be forced to reenact the 2020 national budget – drafted before the COVID-19 pandemic. This would constrain government efforts to respond to the public health crisis and its adverse economic impact. – Rappler.com

JC Gotinga

JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.

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