By GEMMA BAGAYAUA
While commending increases in the budget for social services, civil society organizations involved in budget monitoring scored the government once again for not passing the annual budget law on time.
The Alternative Budget Initiative (ABI), a group composed of 48 non-government organizations and people’s organizations, said the delay meant that the additional P5 billion allocations for social services that the group proposed will not be released until later this year.
“Three months or an entire quarter has been lost,” former National Treasurer Leonor Briones, the group’s co-convenor, said in a press conference. “You lose three months, you lose lives.”
ABI’S PROPOSED LIFE SAVERS
The ABI-proposed amendments to the budget were supposed to fund additional teachers, furniture and school buildings for schools as well as alternative systems and distance education facilities to address illiteracy and the need for marketable skills among adults and out of school youth.
For the health sector, among items the group proposed to increase was the fund for disease control and surveillance. The group also proposed funding for autoclave equipment used in sterilizing medical tools to prevent infections in government health facilities.
Had the funds for autoclave machines been available already, they could have saved thousands of lives, Cecille Bilbao of the Institute for Public Health Management, pointed out.
ONLY 75% WILL BE IMPLEMENTED
The 2008 budget was signed by the president on Tuesday, March 11, 2008. It will become effective 15 days after signing. This means that new programs funded under this budget will be implemented only in April 2008.
Under the Constitution, if the annual budget is not enacted in time for the beginning of the fiscal year, the budget for the previous year is considered re-enacted.
Approval of the budget during the first quarter of the following year means only 75 percent of the additional allocation will actually be implemented this year.
P5B CUT FROM DEBT SERVICING
The ABI earlier lobbied with Congress to have P61.1 Billion of the proposed P1.227-trillion General Appropriations Act of 2008 realigned to fund increases in such crucial areas as education, health and protection of the environment.
The proposal was later reduced to P20.3 billion to be taken from funds automatically appropriated for debt servicing as follows:
• P12.5 billion from savings to be generated from a more realistic exchange rate of P42 to a $ (The executive’s forecast of dollar rate is P48.)
• P5.1 billion from payments for proposed programs, projects and bonds not covered by automatic appropriations
• And P2.7 billion to be generated from other illegitimate loans that must be deferred, pending an investigation of the project
Of the proposed amount, P5 billion made it to the version of the budget that was approved by the bicameral conference committee.
CITIZEN INVOLVEMENT IN BUDGET
Still, the group hailed this as a gain in citizen involvement on the budget process.
“This is the first time that people’s organizations were heard in the budget process,” Briones said.
This is also the first time the “Alternative Budget” was actually discussed in the plenary session of the House of Representatives, she added.
Along with the gains come further challenges though, the group warned.
NOT ASSURED YET
Even if the additional budget they proposed found its way to the budget as signed by the president, Briones says it is no reason for complacency.
The executive department has the leeway to decide which budget items to prioritize first, she noted.
It can delay the release of funds for items that are not in their priorities citing lack of funds, while borrowing funds only for their pet projects, Briones said.
Congress, she said, should “be militant” to ensure that items they placed on the budget are really funded.
The implementation will show if the president is really serious about funding social services, she said.
Briones said Arroyo should also stop the practice of not releasing the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) of legislators who happened to be in the opposition. The “Alternative Budget” concept was initially presented to Congress in 2006.