Education, transport budgets suffer heavy post-bicam cuts
MANILA, Philippines — The education and transportation sectors suffered the most when lawmakers, as described by Sen. Panfilo Lacson, “toyed around” with the government’s fund allocations so they could move P28.35 billion to the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) and fund their favorite projects.
This was among the changes gleaned from the report of the bicameral conference committee tasked to reconcile differences in the Senate’s and House’s versions of the 2021 General Appropriations Act (GAA), which is now awaiting President Duterte’s signature and enactment into law.
The document that was given out to members of the bicameral committee, cochaired by Sen. Sonny Angara and ACT-CIS Rep. Eric Go Yap, outlined the summary of changes in the enrolled version of the GAA, which amounts to P4.5 trillion, the most expensive in Philippine history.
The document showed that the committee slashed the budget for the Department of Transportation (DOTr) by P35.6 billion, the Department of Education (DepEd) by P11.4 billion and the Department of National Defense (DND) by P5.2 billion.
According to the 315-page report, the bicameral committee—which has been criticized for delegating negotiating powers only to Angara and Yap—transferred the slashed funds to the DPWH.
The public works budget, which was at P666.47 billion in the House version, was initially cut by P55.52 billion with the deletion of some items, but it was also allotted P83.87 billion more, or a net increase of P28.35 billion, according to the report.
Most of the new provisions under the DPWH budget pertain to funds for the “construction, reconstruction, upgrading, and improvement of roads and bridges.”
The DepEd budget, on the other hand, was given an additional P5.25 billion, but was also cut by P16.66 billion, for a net decrease of P11.4 billion.
The report said the committee agreed to slash P13 billion from the P24.15-billion fund for the construction of school buildings. The budget item “Basic Education Facilities” was left with P11.15 billion.
Failure to build
In a phone interview, Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian, chair of the Senate committee on basic education, said he agreed to the cut because of “underspending and absorptive capacity issues” as shown by the agency’s supposed failure to build schools, purchase computers and hire about 40,000 teachers.
But Gatchalian claimed that he wanted to retain the slashed funds within the department so it could be used to fund the DepEd’s “pandemic-related” requirements. The DepEd was left with P557.25 billion from the original allotment of P568.65 billion.
The slashed funding could have been used for the voucher system, as well as additional budget for the printing of self-learning modules, Gatchalian said.
The committee report also showed that the DOTr budget of P123.1 billion also suffered a net decrease of P35.66 billion after it was given an increase of P9.3 billion, but was also reduced by P44.96 billion. In the end, the department will only receive P87.44 billion from the initially approved budget of P123.1 billion.
The bulk of the budget cuts was P7.5 billion for the right-of-way payments for railway projects, like the North-South Commuter Railway System, Philippine National Railways South Long Haul Project and the New Cebu International Container Port Project.
Program for PUV drivers
Like Gatchalian, Sen. Grace Poe, chair of the Senate committee on public services, said she agreed to the cuts in the DOTr funding because of the agency’s “underspending and low absorptive capacity” in previous years.
But she expressed dismay that the reduction affected funding for the agency’s service contracting program for drivers of public utility vehicles (PUVs).
“As the sponsor of this item, this is something I disagreed with because we must take into account the thousands of PUV drivers who are still jobless and reeling from the effects of the pandemic and lockdowns,” Poe said.
Under the DOTr’s service contracting program, the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board had begun contracting affected PUV drivers to provide transportation services but the fate of the program is now not known because of the funding cut.
Fund for new weapons
The DND also suffered a net decrease of P5.2 billion after its modernization budget was reduced from the original P35 billion. The defense department was thus left with an allocation of P205.47 billion from the P210.7 billion in the measure approved by the House.
Other departments that received budget cuts were the Departments of Environment and Natural Resources (P1.95 billion), Tourism (P709.9 million) and Energy (P351 million).
But there were also agencies that received increases in their funding, like the Departments of Labor and Employment (P5.6 billion), Social Welfare and Development (P3.67 billion), Interior and Local Government (P3.2 billion), Agriculture (P2.95 billion), Health (P1.37 billion), Trade and Industry (P1.27 billion), Foreign Affairs (P525.89 million), and Justice (P525.4 million).
Funding for both chambers of Congress also increased with an additional P1.04 billion for the Senate and P1 billion for the House of Representatives.
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