Press Release
November 28, 2016

Budget Delayed is Development Denied

Explanation of Vote on the 2017 National Budget Senate Minority Leader Ralph Recto

Mr. President, friends, dear colleagues:

In the opening remarks of my interpellation of this budget, I described this P3.35 trillion check we are about to co-sign as the first of "six annual installments" that this administration will be making to redeem its many promises.

I also called this the "15 percent downpayment" of what it intends to deliver by 2022. Not only are Filipinos acquiring things in 'gives', their government does it too.

But what I failed to mention is that this budget is an ad hoc budget, hastily assembled by a government which had just assumed power but has to dash to meet a constitutional deadline to submit next year's spending plan.

From Budget Call to the submission of the BESF, NEP and other principal documents to Congress is a period that normally takes six months.

But this year, it took just six weeks from the time the new president laid his hand on the Bible to the day the new budget secretary handed over the proposed 2017 national budget to congressional leaders.

Considering the time constraints, putting together 5,097 pages of budget documents was by no means a small feat.

This is not to say that the new team merely copy-pasted what the old had left behind because the budget bears the imprint - and the initiatives - of the new government.

But what cannot also be denied is that the budget seems to be a completely built unit, a CBU, left in the DBM garage by the past administration, and which the new tenants, for lack of time, merely tweaked, accessorized, and rebadged.

It may be sporting a new paint, but scratch the surface and a yellow car shines underneath.

And this is not to say that it is bad, because if there is one fatal mistake an incoming government can make, it is to try to reinvent the wheel.

While new kids on the block ride to power on new bumper stickers, there are institutional things in governance that should not be changed. Leaders can be overthrown but not the entire system. We do not throw the baby with the bathwater.

So if the proposed budget were a car, there was no time to put it through virtual simulated situations, much more road-test it.

So it is left to Congress-to the House and the Senate-to put it to a stress test.

And in the Senate, I can say that the review, from the committee to the plenary, was rigorous. In this hall alone, the Chairperson probably logged 100 hours fielding questions in 10 days, a punishing mental aerobics which, as we can all see, shed her pounds but bulked up our budgeting knowledge.

And in the course of all our interpellations, what would have been the factory defects of the budget cropped up.

And that discovery process, Mr. President, is the layman's definition of "budget authorization," which is to probe the budget for its weaknesses in order to prescribe the cure.

Congress will be remiss in its duties, if, after diagnosing the defects, it will not apply the remedy, for as long as-and this is an important caveat-it is not worse than the disease.

So on the part of the minority, we did our assigned role with vigor, and most of the observations we made were validated as true by the sponsors.

We will cite just a few because the points of agreement are too many to be catalogued.

We cited the fact that large swaths of the budget remain unitemized. Lump sums have not been unbundled, and this is obvious in many megabillion one-line item appropriations in the budgets of DPWH, DA, DepED, DENR, DOTr - projects with price tags teeming with zeros, but devoid of details.

We argued that itemization is the antidote to underspending. By knowing where funds will go, who will implement it, and details of what will be implemented, the projects will be delivered on time. To make the budget terrific, make it specific.

We recommended that projects be geotagged. If Waze can tell us where the congestions are, then government probably can have a GPS - Government Project Site - system which pinpoints the coordinates of a project.

We called for ironclad penalties against underspending - presidential invectives included - because what use is the budget if it will not be spent in full and in time. Trickle-down spending has no place in a country running a huge infrastructure backlog. Budget delayed is development denied.

  •  In the case of DOTr, P38 billion worth of rail, air, maritime, road projects did not leave the station, take off, roll out, or leave the port.

  • The same delay plagued DepED. As I speak, accumulated backlogs from 2014 to 2016 are creating a pile-up of 122,000 unfinished classrooms, 72,000 unhired teachers, 19,000 unconstructed tech-voc and computer labs, 120 million undelivered books, and 20,000 unpurchased Science and Math lab equipment. Budget delayed is education denied.

We called your attention to the emerging bad habit among agencies to transfer their expiring allocations to other agencies and then report them as fund utilization.

  •  Unloading funds on another government agency is neither fund utilization, nor procurement. It is an accounting trick to clean up the books to submit a glowing report card. Agencies must spend the buck, not pass it.

We called for the reinstallation of the "rearview mirror "provision in the national budget so that policymakers and the public would know if projects funded in past general appropriations laws have indeed been implemented.

  •  Budgeting is not just about looking forward. It also entails a great deal of looking back. While the budget documents show us the road ahead, it doesn't report on the road travelled.

We also advocated the installation of an employment odometer on the budget, so we will know that for a P3.35 trillion stimuli, how many jobs it will create in a nation requiring 12 million in six years.

We underscored the need for the restoration of the "Buy Philippine Made" provision in the budget, so that government's bulk-buying power can add muscle to the domestic manufacturing sector we are spending money to "revive and thrive."

  •  What we can manufacture here, we don't have to import from abroad. One good example are the car plates. A small piece of tin we chose to source from the Netherlands. Yet here we are building megaton ships in Cebu.

While we perused the large-font thrusts of this budget, we also examined its fine print. A few examples:

We cited the incredulity of the 13-peso budget of the meals we serve to malnourished kids in schools and daycares.

  • Our prison's "17-peso preso value meals" are costlier than the 13-peso meals we feed our children. We respectfully recommended that it be increased to 25 pesos, because anyone who can whip up a nutritious meal on 13 pesos should win the Magsaysay Award in kitchenomics.

  • Yes, costlier meals will cost us more because eventually there are no free lunches. But the P2.5 billion additional budget is small compared to the P328 billion annual losses caused by childhood malnutrition.

We proposed a P1.6 billion increase in the budget of the Rural Health Practice Program of the DOH. This will end the looming "en-DOH" of 6,000 nurses deployed to towns too far and too poor to lure medical professionals.

We also pleaded that we add P3 billion to the Health department's drugs and medicines procurement budget, in order to stock up public pharmacies, because for the poor, a doctor's drug prescription remains as such, prescribed but never purchased.

We even bean-counted some unmet needs and unfunded mandate, the small items overlooked in a document swarming with billion peso signs. As it is true in life as it is in budgeting, the essentials are often invisible to human eye.

  •  We discovered that the budget for incentives for centenarians is lacking, so we pushed that it be increased.

  • We drafted a proposed language in the DepEd budget so that unused funds can be used to increase the P1,500 chalk allowance of teachers. Maliit na bagay, but these are the bullets our soldiers in the war against illiteracy use.

We commiserated with the Philippine National Police when reports painted a picture of partially gunless, carless, communications-less police force. But Bato does not need a shoulder to cry on. He and his men need more equipment so there will be fewer mothers crying the loss of their sons, killed by hoodlums, in uniform or not.

  • So we proposed that P5 billion in the Unprogrammed Fund be earmarked for police equipment, firearms, cars, boats, offices, buiIdings. Kung dito kinukuha ang mga utang sa PPP, bakit hindi para sa mas importanteng PPP - Palaban na Pulis na Pilipino.

  • So that for those in distress, help is minutes away by text or phone call. And so that when these officers patrol our streets at night, a grateful citizenry secure in their homes, will say: "There, by the grace of our taxes, go the people who keep us safe."

And, yes, Mr. President, the minority, true to its promise, also viewed the budget from the prism of revenues.

We did not forget that it is taxation which makes appropriations possible. That every project carries a price tag, which will be shouldered by the taxpayer.

It is the realization that every peso this budget spends will be collected from the people, which tempered our tendency to act like a money mint. Budgeting is telling where money should go, and not to print 'unli' money.

So this is why we argued for a minimum 10 percent cut in the bureaucracy's cellphone, electricity, travel, gasoline, advertising, and other non-essential expenses in order to free billions for health and other social services.

We believe the budget peso can still be stretched by converting office overhead into medicines, school lunches, and other things poor people and communities need.

  • For example, next year's proposed P13.8 billion outlay for water, lighting and electricity, which could withstand a 10 percent cut without curtailing service and efficiency.

  •  Another example of an expenditure which can be cut is the government's proposed P17.7 billion travelling expense. Tutal, sinabi ni Presidente Digong na allergic siya sa mga adik sa lakbay aral. Travel's cousin, which is training, should be pared down, too. Education need not be acquired through excursions.

Why did the minority propose this? Because by cutting expenses, we believe we could lighten the burden this budget will impose on our people.

Mr. President, my dear colleagues:

The parliamentary tradition is that the minority votes against the budget. Honestly, I subscribe to that practice, and will honor it, if-and that's a big "if"-the minority's views were not heard and heeded.

But the records of this chamber over the past two weeks show a majority not only accommodating our views, but seconding and joining us in our many manifestations.

If this budget were a fabric, we were not barred from operating the loom, though not often, but frequent enough to qualify us as partners.

Which I think is a good policy, and I thank my colleagues on the other side of the aisle, for that should be the way a P3.35 trillion spending bill must be scrutinized, in a manner in which partisan lines dissolve.

To me, that is also the other meaning of open budgeting, which is to insulate it from partisan warfare, and letting all contribute in the shared task of improving the budget so it evolves into a true instrument for peace, progress and prosperity.

Aside from the fair stance of the majority, there is another factor which influences my vote on this budget and this is about the provenance of this bill. As I've said, it is an ad hoc measure whose weaknesses I hope have been cured during the budget authorization phase.

It is also the maiden budget of the administration, and in my book, the honeymoon period it enjoys must extend to its first spending bill, more so if it is largely a CBU inherited from the past.

So, Mr. President, I vote "Yes" to this bill because one cannot have a hand in shaping it and then in effect deny and delete authorship of certain parts by voting later in the negative.

But I would like to stress that my "Yes" vote is only on this particular juncture of the process, this Senate stop.

If what will be returned to us from the bicameral conference is a mangled version beyond recognition, then I will vote "No".

And lastly, let us not lose sight of the fact that the budget remains a thick promissory note unless redeemed by fast, transparent and judicious spending. All our labors, all the taxes paid by the people, are for naught, if it is not properly and promptly spent.

News Latest News Feed