Senate OKs budget, P100B for calamities

MANILA, Philippines – The Senate approved the P2.2648 trillion national budget for 2014, allocating P100 billion for the calamity and rehabilitation fund.

All 16 senators present on Tuesday, November 26, approved the budget on second, and third and final reading after days of marathon plenary debates.

The amount is lower than the P2.268 trillion the House of Representatives approved in October, with the P3.2 billion Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) of the 15 senators and Vice President Jejomar Binay who chose to forego the funds stricken off.

This is the first budget the Senate approved in decades that excludes the PDAF. Last week, the Supreme Court struck down the PDAF as unconstitutional following the pork barrel scam, where lawmakers allegedly siphoned off the funds to fake non-governmental organizations in exchange for kickbacks.

Yet Escudero said senators agreed in caucus to "respect the decision" of the House and other senators who chose to realign the PDAF to line agencies. He said the Senate inserted special provisions so the lump sum items will be changed into line or specific items in the budget.

“On the part of the House, that is not PDAF because you notice we removed all provisions giving lawmakers involvement in the projects parked in agencies by means of lump sums,” Escudero told reporters.

“In addition, we required that the agencies give a separate budget to the Department of Budget and Management to reflect the itemized utilization of the amount. They also have to submit a report to the Commission on Audit, Congress and House of Representatives and Senate and for the agencies to post on their website the [use] of the lump sum items for their agencies,” he added.  

Escudero and Senate President Franklin Drilon said the Senate reviewed the budget to ensure there are no provisions violating the Supreme Court ruling barring the involvement of lawmakers in projects after the passage of the budget.

Escudero said, “We saw 3 provisions: one is the school building program, two on the excise tax, and 3 on the coco funds where it required the consent or prior approval of Congress or the lawmaker before the release of the funds.” 

The Senate fast-tracked the approval of the budget even before senators could introduce individual amendments.

The Senate closed the period of individual amendments subject to a motion of Deputy Minority Leader Vicente “Tito” Sotto III authorizing Senate Finance Committee Chairman Senator Francis Escudero to accept senators’ individual amendments submitted in writing until Wednesday, 5 pm.

Senate Majority Leader Alan Peter Cayetano said, “All the amendments that will be submitted will be on record so we will give our personal, individual amendments to the chairman of the committee on finance. If he approves it, it will be part of what we will send the bicam. If not, it will form part of our records.”

The Senate and the House will now reconcile their versions of the budget bill in the bicameral conference committee. Drilon told reporters the bicam may start next week, and Congress can send the budget to President Benigno Aquino III for approval on the second week of December.

Cayetano announced that the Senate contingent to the bicameral debates are himself, Escudero, Senators Teofisto “TG” Guingona III, Loren Legarda, Ralph Recto, Sergio “Serge” Osmeña III, Sotto and Jinggoy Estrada.

Escudero said he is willing to open the bicam debates to the public.

Calamity rehab fund now P100B

In the Senate version of the budget, the chamber increased Malacañang’s original proposal for the calamity fund amounting P7.5 billion to P100 billion.

Escudero said the P100 billion is meant for disaster rehabilitation and reconstruction. He said this is a key difference from the House version but he expects the congressmen to accept the change considering the extent of the damage from Yolanda.

The amount is separate from the P14.6 billion supplemental budget for 2013, and the P20.8 billion calamity-related funds remaining in the 2013 budget, according to Drilon.  

The Senate has been eyeing bigger allocations for relief and rehabilitation following a series of disasters that hit the Philippines including Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan), typhoons Santi (Nari) and Labuyo (Utor), the magnitude 7.2 earthquake in the Visayas, and the Zamboanga siege.

Escudero said the P100 billion rehabilitation fund for 2014 is composed of P80 billion from unprogrammed funds (from infrastructure projects, risk management and debt management funds) and P20 billion from programmed funds (Miscellaneous Personnel Benefit Funds).

Programmed funds are funds covered in the budget by identified revenue sources. Unprogrammed funds can only be used if the national treasurer can certify a new source for these funds.

Escudero said the Senate decided to amend the budget to increase the rehabilitation fund even if the final figures of the damage from Yolanda are not yet available.

The November 26 report of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council pegged the total damage from Yolanda at P24 billion, with P13 billion for infrastructure and P11 billion for agriculture.

“The cataclysmic force that hit our country requires serious response to influence significant rehabilitation and reconstruction of the communities barrelled by catastrophes. We need to infuse major financial foundation to recoup and retain the physical, economic and social viability of these communities,” Escudero said.

On Thursday, Escudero’s finance committee will begin hearing the supplemental budget Drilon filed to augment the 2013 disaster fund. The P14.6 billion supplemental budget will be sourced from the unspent PDAF allocations for the year.

Escudero and other senators have said that the P7.5 billion calamity fund for 2013 “is already almost depleted,” with the Philippines hit by one disaster after another.

Budget Secretary Florencio Abad has said the passage of the 2014 budget will be key to fund the government’s long-term rehabilitation program for victims of the various disasters.

Budget breakdown

The following is the budget breakdown per department in the Senate version of the bill. The figures are from records of the Senate Legislative Budget Research and Monitoring Office: