By Beting Laygo Dolor
Contributing Editor

The Duterte administration is not letting the delayed passage of the 2019 national budget prevent it from attaining its economic goals.

This year’s budget was not signed into law by President Rodrigo Duterte until April, or four months late. By then, the ban on infrastructure projects spending because of the May elections had kicked in.

This means that for the first half of 2019, the government was operating on the previous year’s re-enacted budget, which did not yet have the massive sums set aside for the administration’s “Build, Build, Build” infrastructure program.

The Duterte government must, therefore, play catch-up on its spending if it is to attain the economic growth projected for this year.

This is precisely what the administration has in mind. After the government had under-spent by PHP1 billion a day prior to the signing of the budget. With the biggest projects lying idle, the country’s growth slumped in the first and second quarters of this year, by 5.26 percent and 5.5 percent, respectively.

Last week, the Senate finance committee said it will zero in on the government’s spending catch-up after a briefing was held by the Development Budget Coordinating Committee, made up of the Department of Budget and Management (DBM), National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA), Department of Finance, and the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas.

While the catch-up plan was announced in July, it was only in August that it was actually implemented.

The Treasury reported last week that government spending began to pick up at the onset of the second semester by 3.43 percent.

NEDA Sec. Ernesto Pernia said, “The marching order of the President, and which we agree, is we really have to speed up government spending on infrastructure so that we can catch up to the extent of raising the growth rate.”

Since the target for 2019 is 6.7 percent growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the NEDA chief said the economy must expand by 6.4 percent from July to December.

Finance Sec. Carlos Dominguez said infrastructure spending in the second half of the year should propel the economy to the targeted growth rate.

“In infrastructure – with its multiplier effect on growth – the bulk of the disbursements in the year’s second semester is expected to keep economic expansion on a higher plane, barring obstacles such as erratic weather disturbances,” said Dominguez.

Dominguez added that he was confident that the government could carry out the catch-up spending plan, even as they were keeping an eye on risks that could slow down the growth, notably the ongoing US-China tariff war.

The private sector was not as optimistic on the administration hitting its targets, including cutting the national poverty rate in half by 2022. This, after the Philippine Statistics Authority reported the weak GDP growth for the first semester of the year.

Whether valid or not, the reason given by the Duterte administration that the growth target for 2019 was upset by the budget delay should not be repeated next year.

Pernia warned that a repeat of the re-enacted 2019 budget for 2020 would definitely result in a further slowing down of the economy. What would happen is that “we would have regressing economic growth performance, probably below five percent” for next year.

Because of this, House leaders from both the administration and the opposition promised that the General Appropriations Act for 2020 would be ready way before the end of this year.

Marathon session will be held until the end of this month in order to finish all budget deliberations, according to House majority leader Ferdinand Romualdez.

The 2019 budget had been delayed due to disagreements between the Senate and the House Representatives over the latter’s alleged “insertions” in proposed spending.