Tito Sotto calls for special caucus on national budget

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MANILA, Philippines — Senate President Vicente Sotto III will call for a senators’ caucus on Monday to discuss their timetable for the 2019 national budget of 10 more government agencies and the abolition of the controversial Road Board.

During yesterday’s Kapihan sa Senado forum, he admitted that there are a number of national issues that should be discussed and settled among senators once session resumes on Jan. 14.

“On Monday, right after the roll call, I will be calling for an all-senators caucus. We will be discussing the timetable for the budget and the list of agencies that are still pending for the period of interpellations in the GAB (General Appropriations Bill). We have to resolve that and those issues that need to be resolved by the Senate and not by the Senate President alone,” he said.

Congress failed to pass the 2019 national budget before going on break last December, prompting the government to operate under a reenacted budget.

The House of Representatives was behind schedule in approving the 2019 GAB after passing the bill on final reading only on Nov. 20. This led to the delay in plenary deliberations at the Senate, which only started to look into the GAB on Dec. 4.

Sotto said he would also use the caucus to discuss with his fellow senators the abolition of the Road Board – an issue that he said would “technically” no longer need a bicameral conference (bicam) as the Senate has already adopted the House version.

“Our majority leader, who is cooperating and coordinating with the majority leader of the House of Representatives; their request is for us to go into a bicam, Senator (Juan Miguel) Zubiri told me… but the other half of the Senate believes there is no need for a bicam because we have adopted the House version. What is there to resolve when there are no disagreeing provisions?” he added.

He said if a bicam will be held, the Senate has to pass a resolution recalling the previous motion on the abolition of the Road Board.

Asked what could be the intention of the House in pushing for a bicam, he said he didn’t know.

“Maybe they want to introduce an amendment in their version,” said Sotto, who cautioned that the “new amendments” could not be taken up during a bicam.

Sotto expressed apprehensions that the Road Board abolition might drag on further in the event a bicameral conference is conducted, citing some instances in the past.

“A lot of things could happen (during a bicam),” he said, recalling instances when a bicam report was already agreed upon and approved by both Houses, but had to wait after an adjournment sine die because the House speaker did not sign.

He stressed the time element, noting that session will resume on Jan. 14 and again go on break by Feb. 12.

“After Feb. 12, we will only resume session on the last week of May for another two weeks. But what if the pens of those needing to sign runs out of ink? It can happen again. When the Senate adopted the House version, it should now be an enrolled bill and sent to the President for signature. But this is my own opinion,” Sotto said.

Opposition Sen. Franklin Drilon said the abolition of Road Board is critical in the government’s fight against corruption, saying the body has become a breeding ground for corruption and inefficiency. 

From 2001 to May 2018, the total collection for motor vehicle user’s charge (MVUC) reached P166.18 billion, with total releases amounting to P136.87 billion.

He stressed that there is no valid reason to further delay the transmittal of the bill that called for its abolition to the Office of the President.

“The bill should be sent immediately to the President’s desk for action. We should let the President decide. It is a political decision. Since the Senate already adopted the House version, the House lost jurisdiction over the bill and could no longer validly reconsider its approval of the measure,” Drilon pointed out.

He is among the senators who believe the Senate’s decision to adopt the House version of the bill “rendered a bicameral conference unnecessary.”

Duterte had called on Congress to abolish the Road Board and transfer its functions to the appropriate department. Both houses have responded by immediately passing their own versions of the bill.

10 agencies more

Sotto said the Senate is targeting to ratify the P3.757-trillion 2019 national budget before Jan. 27.

Only the budget proposals for 10 more government agencies – the departments of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), Tourism (DOT), National Defense (DND) and Health (DOH) as well as that of the Dangerous Drugs Board (DDB), Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA), Presidential Legislative Liaison Office (PLLO), National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP), Bureau of Immigration (BI) and the Commission on Elections (Comelec) – need to be looked into.

Sotto said the budget of BI was left out when that of the Department of Justice (DOJ) was approved and submitted for plenary deliberation.

“Most probably, we will start at 10 a.m. (on Jan. 14)… and extend all the way to Thursday morning and afternoon. I hope not, but if we have to, we will,” he added.

Zubiri said a meeting among the senators would determine the timetable for the national budget’s third-reading approval in the Senate.

Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo warned Congress that further delays in passing the national budget will affect the release of funds for the salary increases of soldiers, policemen, teachers and other government employees.

He urged Congress to set aside “partisan considerations” and to focus its attention on GAB, stressing that a delay would also eventually set back the commencement and continuation of infrastructure projects, aside from its impact on the efficient delivery of social services.

Sen. Panfilo Lacson said a pork-laden budget is far worse than a delayed or reenacted one.

“Scrutinizing the national budget to get rid of excessive, unconscionable, unreasonable and irregular appropriations is not playing partisan politics. Rather, I consider it a patriotic duty of every legislator who wishes to be the vanguard of good governance through conscientious spending of the Filipino people’s money,” he pointed out.

Lacson added that the “national budget is the lifeblood of the country.”

“Therefore, we must see to it that we do our role in making sure it serves its purpose and not just stuff the pockets of some insatiably greedy politicians,” Lacson stressed.