By Beting Laygo Dolor
Contributing Editor

If the General Appropriations Act of 2020 faces the same delay as the national budget law experienced earlier this year, the Philippines’ economic growth will be severely affected. So says the country’s economic planners.

But the possibility of another delayed budget loomed last week when senators scrutinized the House version of the PHP4.1 trillion 2020 budget and found what they concluded was the presence of pork barrel allocations, which had already been deemed illegal by the Supreme Court.

Earlier this year, the Senate and the House clashed over what the former said were “insertions” in the budget which were actually pork barrel allocations.

This year, a repeat of the word war between the bicameral Congress cannot be discounted following a similar accusation two weeks ago from Sen. Panfilo Lacson that the lower house was again trying to pull a fast one with another round of budget insertions.

While the House had transmitted next year’s budget early, Lacson said it was not the “pork free” budget that had been promised. He said that he found that some congressmen would be receiving PHP700 million each in what was tantamount to pork barrel allocations but under various guises.

Besides the suspected pork barrel, lawmakers also raised concerns about budgetary cuts for the health sector, with the allocations for the Department of Health and the Philippine General Hospital (PGH) being slashed considerably. This, despite a series of health scares involving various diseases like polio and dengue affecting the general populace this year.

PGH’s budget was cut by PHP456 million, which caused Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto to say, “While many are getting sick, we are slashing our budget for hospitals.”

Meanwhile, the PHP11.6 billion budget cut for the Commission on Higher Education, or from PHP52.43 billion this year to PHP40.78 billion proposed for next year, is seen to set back the free tuition and scholarship programs of the government.

“The budget cut for tertiary education is a ticket to a forced vacation for many public and private college students,” Recto said.

Various sectors also complained that the budget was not distributed properly.

“Realignments” had been blamed for the unjust distribution of funds to include a sizeable increase in the Office of the President’s intelligence fund, as well as a lack of sufficient allocations for food security.

Where the latter is concerned, PHP9.5 billion was re-allocated to local government units, as well as the National Food Authority.

This year, the President’s approved intel funds reached an all-time high of PHP8.2 billion, or nearly double the approved allocations for the past two years.

National Economic and Development Authority Sec. Ernesto Pernia earlier warned that another delayed budget would cause serious repercussions to the economy. He warned of “regressing economic growth performance” likely in the vicinity of five percent if the Duterte administration were to work on a re-enacted budget for next year instead of the targeted budget.

This year’s delayed budget kept some 420,000 Filipinos poor, based on the failure of the government to attain its poverty reduction targets, according to Socio-economic Planning Undersec. Rosemarie Edillon.

She told a Senate hearing earlier this year that because of the delayed budget, the government could not implement multiple infrastructure projects, which affected job generation.

Thus, while the House vowed to pass the 2020 budget within the next couple of months, it again remains to be seen if the Senate will be willing to go along with the realignments, especially the ones suspected of being just another form of pork barrel.

President Duterte may have certified the General Appropriations Act of 2020 as urgent but the Palace said the Chief Executive would not hesitate to veto the bill if pork barrel is inserted within.