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Solon: Budget deliberations should be open to the public

A day before the Senate and the House of Representatives are set to convene on their versions of the P1.645 trillion government budget for 2011, a partylist solon asked that the bicameral conference be open to the public. The House approved its version on November 8 while the Senate, affirmed its version on December 1. “The tradition is that after the proposed budget has gone through deliberations in the Congress and the Senate, it will then be discussed by both houses in a closed-door meeting. I push to break that tradition and open the meeting to the public, whose stake in the budget is the highest," Kabataan Rep. Raymond Palatino said on Monday. He said a closed-door budget meeting will further move the decision-making process of crucial policies away from the people. “In the hope of producing a pro-people national budget, I do not see any problem why the bicameral meeting should not be open to the public. Otherwise, it would seem to confirm that lawmakers are really up to pass budgetary provisions that are against the welfare of the people," he said in a press statement. One of the contentious provisions in the proposed budget, according to Palatino, is the cut on the budget of State Universities and Colleges (SUCs). “I appeal to the conscience of my fellow lawmakers to heed the clarion call of the youth and the people to raise the measly budget of the SUCs. Doing so would prove that we really care for the future of our youth, " he said. He likewise urged President Benigno Simeon Aquino III to reverse his state policy on reducing government support for the SUCs. “It is worthwhile to recall President Aquino’s oath to the people: ‘Hindi ako magnanakaw’ (I shall not steal). But is not the reduction of government support to public tertiary education a form of stealing? Does it not rob the youth of their future?" he asked. Pro-poor programs Meanwhile, Leonor Magtolis Briones, lead convenor of Social Watch Philippines (SWP), asked the bicameral committee to return the billions of pesos for pro-poor programs that were realigned to lump sum budget items. “These lump sums are severely lacking in details and do not reflect a comprehensive solution to poverty," she said in a press statement. SWP and members of the Alternative Budget Initiative (ABI), have been criticizing the use of "zero-based budgeting" to transfer the line agencies' budget to the P21 billion Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) program under the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD). ABI is the SWP-led network of a hundred citizens’ groups that annually sets forth alternative budget proposals with higher allocations for social development. “The CCT Program allocations are part of the P94 billion in lump sum appropriations which are proposed in the 2011 budget," Briones said. "The congressmen themselves complained that reductions were made in the programs of frontline agencies and transferred to lump sum items without sufficient detail," Briones added. Professor Marivic Raquiza of the University of the Philippines-National College of Public Administration and Governance said the CCT only addresses issues on maternal and child mortality and on keeping children in school for five years. Raquiza lamented that many vulnerable groups are left behind with the serious reduction in the budget for other pro-poor programs. “How can Filipinos be happy this Christmas if the bicam approves a budget with so much reduction on anti-poverty programs?" said Rene Raya of Action for Economic Reforms. He said among those which suffered cuts were:
  • the budget for the Indigents’ Program under the Philippine Health Insurance Program which was slashed by 33 percent;
  • the out-of-school youth program which will only get one percent of the Department of Education budget;
  • housing budget, which was reduced from P11 billion to P5.6 billion, and
  • the reduced budget of the Department of Agriculture, from P41 billion to P37 billion. Briones called on the bicam committee to seriously consider the SWP-ABI alternative budget proposals for agriculture, education, health and the environment. The group proposed a total of P58 billion increases in the budget of social expenditures. It also identified P94 billion in lump sum appropriations as source of funding to finance the increases in the budget of social development programs. “Let us stop underspending for social development. The Philippines’ level of spending for education and health as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is well below international standards. We will continue to lose the war on poverty if the Bicam does not make a move to correct the huge reductions for social development programs," Briones said. She said the biicam committee must now take the task of concentrating all resources to end the people’s suffering, and make this Christmas season a real season of hope. – VVP, GMANews.TV