2020 budget: A year of compromises

AT A GLANCE

  • Only 5 government agencies received budget cuts this year.
  • The Department of Transportation appeared to be the biggest loser among agencies, as its approved budget allocation was far from its ideal budget.
  • President Rodrigo Duterte didn't exercise his direct veto powers on specific infrastructure programs and projects deemed questionable.


MANILA, Philippines – 2020 seems like a good year for government agencies, as most of them got budget hikes in the newly-signed P4.1-trillion national budget.

This is the case for most, with the exception of the Commission on Elections, Department of Budget and Management, Office of the Ombudsman, Department of Finance, and the Civil Service Commission.

Of the 5 government offices with slashed budgets, the Comelec got the biggest funding cut at P6.34 billion, or more than two-thirds of its 2019 budget.

Comelec only has P3.84 billion budget for 2020, as the supposed barangay and Sangguniang Kabataan elections were pushed to December 2022 instead.


The economic team, particularly DBM and DOF, also suffered from budget cuts worth P1.31 billion and P339 million, respectively. The funding cut for DBM was mostly because of its downsizing of operations for general administration and support.

Biggest loser

But among all government offices, it's the transportation department that lost the most.

DOTr received P99.4 billion for 2020, a P31.73-billion increase from its 2019 funds. Despite getting the second highest fund hike, it's far from its ideal budget.

As proposed by the DBM, DOTr's budget proposal amounted to P145.77 billion or more than double its 2019 allocation of P67.67 billion.

During budget deliberations at the House of Representatives, DOTr told congressmen that the department actually needs a whopping P191 billion more for its foreign-assisted railway projects, but asked for an augmentation of only P2.9 billion for its priority projects.

The request was not carried in the approved budget bill at the lower chamber, with congressmen only adding P274.95 billion for Davao International Airport's operating expenses.


When the appropriations bill reached the Senate, senators clipped it even more. They only approved P126.86 billion worth of funds for DOTr.

Senator Panfilo Lacson had earlier raised concerns over DOTr's dismal disbursement of right-of-way funds. Citing Commission on Audit reports, he said that DOTr only spent 39.2% in 2017, 40.7% in 2018, and 39.7% in 2019 for right-of-way acquisition.

Overall, DOTr's disbursement rate remained dismal in 2018 at 23.77% of its P63.45-billion budget. COA found that DOTr committed to spend P55.18 billion but disbursed only P15.07 billion by that year's end.

This had been an issue since 2017, as DOTr underspent P13.60 billion because of "policy shifts."

After bicam discussion, DOTr funds were further reduced, with only P99.4 billion appropriated for it.

Compromises?

In late September 2019, the House of Representatives passed the then-general appropriations bill ahead of its October deadline. Because of the swift passage, House lawmakers introduced only P9.52 billion worth of "institutional amendments" to the budget bill.

Several controversies sprouted in between, such as the alleged P100 million "pork" for congressmen, but none of these blossomed into a full-blown budget deadlock.

Lawmakers, as it appeared, were afraid of repeating last year's standoff that led to a 4-month reenacted budget. In the first quarter of 2019 – 3 months into a reenacted budget – the economy plunged to a 4-year low of 5.6%, or 0.9% lower than the 6.5% record in the same period in 2018. (READ: What to expect as gov't operates on a reenacted budget)

When the two chambers met, much of the discussions on the 2020 budget were done behind closed doors. 

But just before Congress ratified the bicam-approved report on the budget, Lacson in December 2019 claimed that House lawmakers had "last-minute insertions" amounting to P16.345 billion. 

Fearing delay, Senate President Vicente Sotto III asked Lacson to sign the enrolled budget bill, despite his qualms.

"Ang usapan lang, kasi baka maantala ang pag-submit ng enrolled bill, so pipirmahan. Pero nauna roon, pinadala ko sa kanya (Sotto) ang listahan ng questionable items," Lacson said in December.

(Our agreement was to just sign it already, because it might delay the submission of the enrolled bill. But before that, I already sent him the list of questionable items.)

Lacson had hoped that President Rodrigo Duterte would strike these off the 2020 budget once approved. After all, it's the "prerogative of the President," he said. But unlike last year, the President did not exercise his direct veto powers on specific programs and projects.

Instead, Duterte only placed several items under conditional implementation, which only meant that the DBM can only disburse funds once the agencies have complied with existing laws and policies. It included the following:

  • Foreign travels of government officials and employees
  • Department of Public Works and Highway's and DOTr's resettlement program for residents affected by infrastructure projects
  • Department of Social Welfare and Development's supplementary feeding program worth P3.70 billion
  • Funding for foreign-assisted projects using unprogrammed appropriations
  • Department of Tourism's tourism development fund
  • Release of funds for Marawi and earthquake-damaged regions
  • Department of Health's Botika ng Barangay program and advance payments to drugs and vaccines that are not locally available
  • Bureau of Jail Management and Penology's subsistence and medical allowance to prisoners program worth P4.66 billion
  • Commission on Higher Education's cash grants to medical students program

Lacson still treated Duterte's action as a positive move, and submitted to the budget department a list of projects he considered questionable. DBM, according to him, said it would consider withholding funds for the items on his list.

Clinging to DBM's promise, Lacson said: "I have no reason to doubt Acting Secretary Avisado."

Apparently useless

But it seemed like the odds were not in favor of Lacson this time.

In a Malacañang briefing on Wednesday, January 8, Budget Assistant Secretary Rolando Toledo said that there's nothing much that can be done as the fiscal plan has already been approved.

"I guess we have to look into it and we look if there are merits, or rather a value for that. But given the fact that it's already signed by the President, there's no value for that, or change rather," Toledo said.

"'Yung pagbabago pa? (To change it?) I don't think we can do it because it's been signed by the President," Toledo added.

Asked if Lacson's actions would be useless, Toledo nodded in the affirmative: "I think so."

There's "nothing" that cannot be addressed by Duterte's order of conditional implementation on particular projects, according to DBM. But that's the case only if Lacson's list of projects were part of the said list.

Was the compromise really worth it? – with a report from Mara Cepeda/Rappler.com

Aika Rey

Aika Rey covers the Philippine Senate for Rappler. Before writing about politicians, she covered budget, labor, and transportation issues.

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