Thursday, December 2, 2010

2011 National Budget heads towards Bicameral Conference Committee starting December 6

By Chanda Shahani

It's what University of the Philippines School of Economics Professor Benjamin E. Diokno, a former Budget Secretary, calls “the Third Chamber of Congress,” referring to the bicameral conference committee hearings made up of senators and congressmen which will iron out a compromise version of the 2011 budget based on both the House and Senate versions, so that President Benigno S. Aquino III can sign this into law as the 2011 General Appropriations Act.

President Aquino, however has said that he intends to use the line item veto on provisions he disagrees with in the compromise version.

The bicameral conference committee hearings are scheduled to take place from December 6 to 13 in an atmosphere so shrouded with secrecy that Professor Diokno said in a December 2, 2010 Businesworld column that, “the Third Chamber, an institution not even mentioned in the Constitution, cannot be more powerful than the House and the Senate.”

Even as budgets of State Universities and Colleges (SUCs) have been slashed, it is certain that their fate will lie in the hands of the leaders of both houses of Congress. The House team will be headed by Speaker of the House Rep. Feliciano Belmonte (4th District, Quezon City) and Committee on Appropriations Chairman Rep. Joseph Emilio A. Abaya (1st District, Cavite) while the Senate side will be led by Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Franklin Drilon.

A transcript of an ambush interview with Senator Drilon provided by the Philippine Senate indicates that Drilon, a senior member of the Liberal Party (LP), and the LP-dominated House of Representatives, will have little trouble marching through the period of amendments in bicameral conference committee. Excerpts:

Q: Maraming mga rallies sa supposed budget cuts sa SUCs?

DRILON: In the first place, paulit ulit po tayo, wala pong budget cut and SUCs. Ang nangyari po yung hindi binalik sa budget yung mga congressional initiatives at insertions vetoed by Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo at ang sinabi niya, hindi pwedeng mai-release kung walang bagong revenue ang pamahalaan. Ang deficit nga P325 billion kaya hindi po nai-release ito. Hindi po binawasan ang budget ng SUCs. I can assure the SUCs that they will have the budget of the same level of 2010, in fact higher because of the salary increases that we will include in implementation of salary standardization 3.

Q: Sino yung mag-e-explain sa kanila kasi yun pa rin ang pinapaniwalaan nila?

DRILON: Mahirap gisingin yung gising. Kaya yan po wala pong binawas sa SUC budget.

Q: Zero po yung capital outlay?

DRILON: Yung capital outlay, ibig sabihin nagawa nay un. Yung capital outlay para sa mga sabihin nating building. Eh kung nagawa na yung building bakit natin ilagay muli? Assuming na naglagay ng P5 million sa building at yan po ay nagawa na, eh bakit mo ibabalik?

Q: Yung MOOE may cut din?

DRILON: Di babawasan ang MOOE mula sa current year. Ang dagdag, kapag kailangan pa nila ng mga salapi, yan po ay merong mga internally generated funds naman sila.

Q: Third reading today, Monday bicam na?

DRILON: Yes. Kung hindi man matapos ang third reading today, we'll have it approved on Monday them bicam na.

Q: Yung amendments through caucus?

DRILON: Yes we will discuss the amendments. Hopefully there can be agreements and then we will just manifest the agreements on the floor.

(2nd part)

DRILON: ... Hindi naman. We just want to avoid a situation where there are so many vetoes. I want to avoid that.

Q: And they get away with it. Sila Gloria ina-amend nila yung pinasa ng Congress.

DRILON: Hindi naman. That's the system of check and balance. That's why to the extent possible, we want to avoid what happened this year, for the 2010 GAA wherein there were numerous items vetoed. Sayang naman ang trabaho mo kung puro na lang veto.

Meantime, Senator Juan Miguel Zubiri issued a press release recognizing the legitimacy of student protests against the cutting of state subsidies to SUCs.

"The hemorrhage of government subsidy for State Universities and Colleges must be stopped. From 87.74% government share in the cost of running State Universities and Colleges in 2000, this dropped to only 67.35% over just 10 years. And sliding to 66.31% with the 2011 proposed budget.

Education is always the right investment, that is where we must proceed. Our neighbors in Asia all outspend us. They do it to benefit from economic growth after temporary setbacks. Our education expenditures account for only 3.2% of GDP and 17.8% of total public expenditures. It's dismal when compared to our neighbour Malaysia with education expenditures at 8.1% to GDP, or 20.3% of total public expenditures. For tertiary education, they outspend us at 107% of GDP per capita, whereas we spend 14.5% of GDP per capita.

Although government increased scholarships as part of the regular expenditures, the Philippines is still a laggard in education budget. From a low of 29,963 scholars in 2004, to a peak of 42,064 scholars in 2006, we slide back with just 30,981 scholars in 2007, according to the latest audited reports from Congress.

Besides, many of those are actually student loan types of scholarships that have to be repaid after graduation while others have to be repaid once the student is employed. Why can't we just grant full scholarships with a student pledge to render service to the university or to the country for a limited period?

We are also lagging in investment in scholarships for faculty in the Tertiary level; from zero to 14,200 faculty members. The same goes for investments for the hard infrastructure like school buildings, libraries, laboratories with state of the art equipment and IT infrastructure and connection."

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