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Budget passage must be Congress’ first priority

August 22, 2019

NOW that the 2020 National Expenditure Program, the administration’s proposed P4.1-trillion budget for next year, has been handed over to the House of Representatives, it is timely to remind members of both houses of Congress that the country will have very little tolerance for a repeat of last year’s unnecessary impasse. To avoid another near-disastrous outcome, the blame for which will — again — fall squarely at the feet of the legislature, the 2020 budget bill must be passed on time, to the exclusion of other work, if necessary.

To recall, the 2019 budget was delayed due to what amounted to a turf war between the House and Senate over certain items that had been inserted in the budget during the course of deliberations over it. The P3.7-trillion General Appropriations Act for 2019 should have been passed before the year-end holiday in December, but instead was not finally approved and passed along for the President’s signature until mid-April this year.

Ordinary administrative and transmittal procedures along with the midterm elections further delayed the actual implementation of the budget until the latter part of May, meaning the government was forced to operate on 2018’s reenacted budget for five months, reducing planned government spending by nearly 90 percent. According to the Department of Finance, it has only been this month, August, that the pace of government spending has returned to normal, making it very unlikely that it will be able to spend quickly enough in the remainder of the year to make up for the lost time.

The slow pace of government spending is now acknowledged as the key cause of decelerating economic expansion through the first half of the year, and again, it was entirely due to Congress’ failure to pass the budget on time. This cannot be allowed to happen under any circumstances, but especially not with the 2020 budget, the largest in the nation’s history. It will fund several key programs that, if not begun on time and according to plan, might cause chaos beyond a mere economic slowdown.

The 2020 National Expenditure Program contains the first substantial budget for the Universal Health Care program, allocating P166.5 billion to be funded largely by excise taxes on tobacco and alcohol. The House just this week approved measures to increase those taxes.

Of the total budget, P108.8 billion has been proposed for the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino program, or 4Ps, which represents a significant increase and expansion of the conditional family subsidy scheme.

The Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao has been allocated P70.6 billion, which is considered vital to helping the new regional administration establish itself.

The 2020 budget also sets aside P10 billion for the Rice Competitiveness Enhancement Fund. This program, which began this year with about half of the specified funds, is to be funded from customs duties on imported rice, and is intended to offset any harm to farmers caused by the liberalization of rice imports.

The proposed budget will also provide funding for an entirely new government agency, the Department of Human Settlements and Urban Development, which is allotted P641.6 million. The new department is expected to help solve a number of chronic problems, including the critical shortage of affordable housing and the slow provision of housing relief for families displaced by calamities.

Congressional representatives have so far offered reassurances that they are aware of the implications of a delayed budget, and that they will act quickly to apply the proper deliberative process and pass the 2020 outlay. That of course is exactly what the legislators are expected to say, and is no basis for judgment; praise, if warranted, will only be earned by their actions toward passing a sound budget on time.

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