Senate ratifies ‘pro-poor’ budget

PHILIPPINE NEWS SERVICE — THE Senate yesterday finally ratified the final version of the 2009 proposed P1.415 trillion budget highlighted by a P50 billion economic stimulus package which were taken from the debt servicing allocation.

Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile described the budget, specifically the allotted stimulus package, as “pro poor” since it will be used to push socio-economic projects in the countryside needed to cushion the effects of the global financial crisis.

“There is a large margin in the amount submitted to cover the debt service. We can cut it. And we have more urgent needs. That is why we cut the debt service submitted by the President and allocated much to education because there is a need to correct our problem with education, agriculture and hasten the infrastructure projects in order to create jobs,” he said

“Sabi namin, let’s reduce that amount allocated to debt service by P50 billion and use that amount to augment the budget of the other sections of the budget like education, health, agriculture and so forth,” Enrile said in a media forum.

Senators Panfilo Lacson and Benigno Aquino III, however, voted against the budget measures, citing concerns ranging from the possibility of overspending to the likelihood that the eventual budget law may end up being unconstitutional.

Of the P50.7 stimulus package, P10 billion is broken down as follows: P3 billion for construction of classrooms/schoolbu ildings; P2.5 billion for food production; P1 billion for training assistance for laid off workers, and financial assistance to small and medium enterprises; P1 billion for education and skills development training programs for Kabataang Pinoy; P1 billion for buying medicines and other health supplies for far-flung areas; P1 billion for Bantay Kalikasan and Bantay Dagat programs; P500 million for financial assistance for talinong pinoy program; and P70 million for recycling of agricultural and forest wastes products.

The remaining P40 billion is spread out to various agencies for job creation, provision of better services, and other assistance.

Of the P50 billion placed in the stimulus package, P35 billion came from a reduction in the debt service. This is similar to what Congress did with the 2008 budget, when it reduced debt service by about P26 billion and realigned the amount to various agencies.

President Macapagal-Arroyo had vetoed last year the cut in debt payments, saying Congress has no power to cut debt service which takes the form of automatic appropriation.

But the realigned amount was not taken away from the various agencies, bloating the budget by P26 billion more than the original Malacañang proposal. Lacson stressed this point in raising his objection to the 2009 budget measure.

“Now if the President vetoes the proposed cut from the debt service without deducting the same amount from the line item to which they are now re-appropriated, the 2009 GAA becomes constitutionally infirm,” he said.

“Judging from the veto message sent by the President to Congress on the 2008 national budget, I cannot see how she will not veto this year’s P50.1 billion cut from the debt service,” Lacson added.

Lacson, who was supposed to be a member of the bicameral conference committee on the budget measure, was also dismayed by the lack of transparency in the bicameral process.

He said only the two chairmen of the Senate-House panel, Senate finance committee chair Edgardo Angara and House appropriations committee chair Junie Cua, met and hammered out the final version of the measure.

Crisis cushion

The 2009 national budget will be utilized to cushion the immediate and long-term effects of the current global financial crisis.

Speaker Prospero Nograles assured the public that the P1.415 trillion budget will be allocated to vital infrastructure and socio-economic projects.

The House of Representatives ratified the General Appropriations Act of 2009 on Wednesday night over the objection of some members of the minority group.

“This most important piece of legislation will mobilize the country’s human and material resources and catalyze national productivity and development,” Nograles said.

Palace grateful

Malacañang welcomed the ratification of the bicameral conference committee report of the proposed 2009 national budget, saying it is “another step towards progress.”

“We’d like to carry the message of gratitude to both houses of Congress,” Deputy Presidential Spokesman Anthony Golez said shortly after the Senate ratified the budget.

“The Palace trusts the collective wisdom of our lawmakers. The ratification will help us weather the global financial crisis,” Deputy Presidential Spokesperson Lorelei Fajardo said.

The measure which was also ratified by the House of Representatives Wednesday night is ready for signing into law.