By Ellson Quismorio and Vanne Elaine Terrazola
The P3.767-trillion General Appropriations Bill (GAB) for 2018 was ratified by lawmakers on the penultimate session day of the year, paving the way for its signing by President Duterte before Christmas.
Davao City 1st Rep. Karlo Nograles, House Appropriations Committee chairman, said the GAB, which has a House and a Senate version, was approved by the Bicameral Conference Committee at past 2 p.m. Tuesday.
Hours later, the Senate and the House ratified the Bicam-approved measure.
This was achieved after two weeks of painstaking deliberations by congressmen and senators who sought to harmonize the differing provisions of their respective versions of the proposed national budget for next year.
Nograles estimates that the proposed national budget will be signed into law on or before December 19.
Bells and whistles
Among the bells and whistles of the measure are the billions worth of benefits lined up for the education sector.
These are the provision of an additional P1,000 cash allowance for public school teachers from the current P2,500 to P3,500 (budget allocation: P770 million); the increase of at least P10 million each for all state universities and colleges (SUCs) across-the-board for capital outlays to be used in the repair, rehabilitation, constructions of academic buildings and the purchase of equipment, among others (P3.7 billion); and the rollout of the free college education program under Republic Act (RA) 10931 or the Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act (P40 billion) to cover the free tuition and miscellaneous fees for college students in all state colleges and universities nationwide.
“Now there is no stopping free college education in the country. This is truly a legacy-defining measure for the Duterte administration, and its implementation was made possible through the 2018 national budget,” Nograles said.
The 2018 budget will also ensure the implementation of free wifi for all SUCs amounting to P327 million.
Meanwhile, the lawmakers exercised foresight in setting aside an additional P62 billion for the increase of military and uniformed personnel’s (MUP) base pay beginning January 1, 2018. House Joint Resolution (HJR) 18, which bears this effect, was approved on 3rd and final reading on Monday, December 11.
“This will double the basic pay of both the Police Officer 1 and Private from P14,834 per month to P29,668 per month. The funding requirement for this is already included in the 2018 General Appropriations Bill,” noted the Davao congressman.
For the other ranks, the raise in base pay will be calibrated resulting to an average increase of 58.70 percent.
More worthy allocations
Also provided for in the Bicam-approved GAB is the purchase of body cameras for Philippine National Police (PNP) members amounting to P334 million (up from the initial allocation of P100 million); acquisition of two single-engine helicopters with a funding of P451 million; housing for PNP, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) members worth P952 million (up from the realigned P900 million Oplan Double Barrel fund); and the increase of police stations’ funds by adding P850 million to their Maintenance and Other Operating Expenses (MOOE).
Despite opposition from House members, lawmakers agreed to remove in the ratified GAA the P900-million allocation Oplan Double Barrel despite President Duterte’s order for its return in the war on drugs.
Congress also removed the P500-million proposed allocation for “Masa-Masid” which was realigned to the expenses of anti-drug abuse council, among other programs related to the government’s anti-drug campaign.
There was also a P1.2-billion increase in the budget of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA), from P1.37 billion to about P2.59 billion. The PDEA is now tasked to lead the Duterte administration’s flagship campaign against illegal drugs.
Nograles had earlier said that the planned acquisition of body cameras, which had been personally sought by the President, is part of the government’s effort to ensure the observance of standard operating procedures and the rules of engagement during anti-crime operations.
Also noteworthy, according to Nograles, is the P3.5-billion subsidization under the PhilHealth budget for the cost of healthcare benefits of government employees in the executive branch.
“This will cover health care for preventive and curative, in-patient and out-patient services for employees in the executive branch. The health benefits shall be provided to our government employees through PhilHealth-registered healthcare providers,” Nograles noted.
Right of way
One of the most controversial allocations was that of the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), which received the biggest chunk of the proposed 2018 budget at P637.86 billion.
Sen. Panfilo Lacson manifested his opposition to the approved DPWH budget as he said that the agency has not addressed the supposed right-of-way (ROW) issues.
The Bicam granted the DPWH an P11-billion raise, in addition to retaining P50.7 billion of its budget which was earlier in hot water due to unsettled ROW issues.
Senator Loren Legarda, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, said the P11-billion increase was for the implementation of local road infrastructure in the country.
Lacson said the DPWH failed to provide the details of the allocations and said “there are many John Does” in the list of claimants.