Senate finance committee chair Sen. Sonny Angara on Wednesday expressed hopes the bicameral conference meeting to finalize the 2021 national budget will go smoothly, as members of both chambers of the House were focused on pandemic responses, COVID-19 vaccines, and other health programs of the Duterte government.
“I don’t think there will be many disagreements (during the bicam),” said Angara.
He also said the calamity spending would also be particularly important which is one of the prime considerations.
Asked for the timeline of the budget, Angara replied, “very tricky to put a timeline.” But he said they have enough time. He brushed aside any reenacted budget for next year.
Angara guaranteed to give the Commission on Elections (Comelec) additional powers or even funds to conduct elections that meets the challenges of COVID-19.
“This is because we fall in line in polling precincts in barangays and people are at a close distance from each other,” he said.
Meanwhile, Public Attorney’s Office chief Persida Acosta on Wednesday appealed to President Rodrigo Duterte to veto a Senate insertion removing the budget of the agency’s forensic laboratory.
At a media briefing, Acosta called the effort of Senators Franklin Drilon and Angara “a brazen act of discourtesy and disrespect” to the President.
Duterte had ordered, through former Budget secretary Benjamin Diokno, the creation of a forensic laboratory at PAO “to be primarily responsible for undertaking medico-legal and forensics-related functions and activities of the agency.”
Diokno, in the Jan. 14, 2019 two-page communications, directed the creation of positions for medico-legal officers, medical specialists, dentist, medical technologist, nurse, and laboratory aide and abolished 10 positions for associate attorneys “which are no longer needed by the PAO” to fund the creation of the medical personnel.
“That’s what you call disrespect. I did not create those positions. It was the President,” Acosta told reporters.
She accused the two senators of trying to protect the interest of Sanofi Pasteur Inc., the manufacturer of the controversial Dengvaxia vaccine, saying the giant pharmaceutical company is their legal client.
“Why insert a one-line sentence defunding the forensic laboratory?” PAO forensic laboratory chief Dr. Erwin Erfe asked.
Reacting to the reported Comelec insertions in the 2021 national budget, Angara said the instruction of Senate President Vicente Sotto III is clear— nothing should affect the conduct of the 2022 election.
He said they are ready to look into the needs of the Comelec to respond to the pandemic.
Meanwhile, Sen. Panfilo Lacson said he does not agree on anything that is not transparent, especially if it concerns the national budget.
While the bicam may have been reduced to a “Committee of Two,” he said this was not exactly the case.
In fact, Lacson said he already instructed his staff to coordinate closely with the Legislative Budget Research and Monitoring Office on whatever movements of funds before the final version of the bill is presented to the bicam members for our signatures and approval.
Also, he practically demanded that he be furnished with a copy of the details of the Senate version before the convening of the bicameral conference, since what they had until yesterday morning was only the summary of the Senate version.
“Having said all that, we already found some realignments that may seem questionable, based on our preliminary examination,” Lacson said.
“For instance, while some of my recommended slash from the Department of Public Works and Highways’ budget was adopted, we also noticed at least P10 billion worth of infrastructure projects realigned within the same agency under the Senate version,” he added.
Lacson said that while they can identify the locations of the Senate-realigned projects, they may not be able to identify the senator-proponents.
“This is the reason why I have always called for transparency in all our individual amendments by posting the same on our official websites for the media and the public to see.”
“As I already stated, these are very preliminary even as we continue our scrutiny of the budget measure. Thus, the importance of transparency cannot be emphasized enough,” Lacson said.
As this developed, Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said he authored the proposed amendment in the Senate version of the General Appropriations Bill.
He said operating a forensic laboratory division in PAO is a duplication of the functions of the primary law enforcement agencies which are authorized and recognized by law to conduct forensic examination: the PNP and the NBI.
“Note that the NBI, like the PAO, is an attached agency of the DOJ. Instead of duplicating the functions of the NBI and the PNP, PAO should use the funds to hire more lawyers to assist indigents with legal problems,” added Drilon, a former justice secretary.
The hands of the forensic laboratory staff are now tied and could no longer be able to conduct autopsies not only on the victims of the Dengvaxia vaccine but also on victims of other crimes,” he said, adding they could no longer testify in courts for the criminal cases filed against ex-health secretary Janette Garin, former active government officials and Sanofi executives.
“Nothing in the appropriation provided in this act shall be used in the salaries and compensation of personnel and travel allowance, meetings, maintenance and other operating expenses of the PAO Forensic Laboratory Division,” the senators’ one-line insertion read.
Acosta cried foul over such insertion, citing it is illegal and an unconstitutional rider, a violation of the Civil Service Commission rules on permanent employees.
If the 2021 national budget is approved, Acosta vowed to elevate the matter before the Supreme Court questioning the constitutionality and legality of the provision that would prevent the staff of the PAO forensic laboratory from receiving their salaries for next year.