SENATORS are targeting to finish work on the P5.024-trillion national budget bill for 2022 in time to call for a second- and third-reading plenary vote by November 25, the chairman of the Senate Finance committee said Sunday, leaving enough time for a bicameral panel to reconcile a Senate-House final version for ratification before Congress adjourns for Christmas recess.

Averting the prospect of the Duterte government operating under a reenacted 2021 budget by January, Sen. Juan Edgardo Angara, Finance Committee chairman, projects that if the Senate can approve the budget bill on November 25, lawmakers can convene bicameral conference committee meetings between November 29 and December 2. Angara added the reconciled annual money measure can then be sent to the Palace before Congress goes on Christmas break, allowing the President to sign it into law, averting a reenacted budget.

In a radio interview at the weekend, the senator said that following the budget process, the implementers of the Barangay Development Program of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-Elcac) still have a chance to seek reconsideration of the huge cuts made on the program’s 2022 budget, assuming they can comply with the documentation required by senators.

Senators in Angara’s Finance panel earlier supported a P24-billion cut in the  NTF-Elcac’s P28-billion budget allocation this year, after its implementers failed to submit clear and timely reports on how the money was spent.

This, as senators sitting in the Angara panel noted that apart from funds lodged principally under the DILG, certain sums, or P2.3 billion, are spread out in other agencies like Department of Agriculture, Department of  Agrarian Reform and Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (Tesda), leading some lawmakers to suspect it smacked of pork barrel and demanding clear reports on the projects for which billions were spent.

Senators questioned why only 26 percent of areas so far targeted have been declared “cleared” of the communist insurgency—the only active one in the world, having lasted for 50 years.

Minority Leader Frank Drilon particularly cited claims by Philippine National Police officers that they used their share of NTF-Elcac funds for “13-million activities” which he found incredible.

Sa tingin ko, nag double-counting sila e [I surmise they did double counting],” Angara noted on Sunday,  suspecting that PNP officials called a certain number meetings on why the insurgency, for instance, should not be allowed to impede progress, and then  they extrapolated, thus, coming up with the “13-million” activities figure.

Meanwhile, Angara said they are inclined to heed the proposed realigning of “some of the P2-billion for MOOE to infrastructure,” so the communities can see palpable projects for progress. Angara recalled the point made by Sen. Panfilo Lacson that devoting half of a P4-billion budget just to MOOE does not seem right.

In a separate interview, NTC-Elcac vice chair Hermogenes Esperon stressed “it’s the Barangay Development Program, not the budget of NTF-Elcac, that is at issue.” He promised to submit all the data sought by senators to explain how the BDP spent billions in its budget.

Esperon said they will definitely appeal the budget cuts with senators, and will engage the NTF-Elcac’s top critics, singling out Senators Drilon, Richard Gordon, Risa Hontiveros, Sherwin Gatchalian, Nancy Binay and Grace Poe.

Angara affirmed that Senators may still reconsider the cuts since “we only have the committee report,” assuming the implementers can render a full report and fill in gaps and answer senators’ questions.

Funds for schools, health care

Meanwhile, Angara said the Senate version of the budget took care to add funds to “retrofit” educational facilities against Covid-19 and boost budget for health by way of allotting a total P51 billion for the purchase of booster shots of the Covid vaccines, and for the pandemic-related benefits of health care workers. The latter includes hazard pay, special risk allowance, and compensation for those infected with Covid, Angara added.

“So we added funds for booster shots—because  when they were finalizing the budget, there was no delta [variant] yet, so that wasn’t factored in the funding,” Angara said, partly in Filipino, to explain why the booster purchase was not included by DBM.

Also, funds for strengthening health facilities at the frontlines of combating Covid, as well as provincial hospitals were included in the Senate Finance committee report.

Also, the retrofitting of educational institutions and schools, such as adding more washrooms and improving ventilation, and “helping  teachers and students prepare” for the return to face-to-face   classes, required a tweaking of the budget, he added.

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