Press Release
November 19, 2013

Co-Sponsorship Speech of Sen. Ralph G. Recto
On the 2014 General Appropriations Bill

19 November 2013

Mr. President :

This is an unconventional sponsorship speech but these are not ordinary times.

When it comes to introducing the national budget, the parliamentary tradition is to rattle off a procession of numbers and a parade of projects that make up next year's appropriations.

But today, instead of asking you to approve what was in the original proposed budget, let me ask you to support what was not there.

I am referring, of course, to a reconstruction fund that would help the millions of our countrymen, from Coron to Guiuan, from Zamboanga to Mindoro, overcome misfortune and triumph over disaster.

In short, Mr. President, what I am sponsoring is an idea, which, I hope, we can collectively give flesh to in the course of deliberating this budget.

And if we are able to do that, which I have no doubt we will, then it will be our contribution to healing devastated places and helping damaged lives. It will be this Senate's equity to reconstruction efforts.

Mr. President :

In a country that sits atop the earthquake corridor and is the doormat to the typhoon alley, it is but inevitable that disasters become macro economic assumptions of the national budget.

Typhoons and earthquakes do not only rearrange the lay of the land, they can also refigure budgetary priorities.

A movement in LIBOR and GDP rates may, for example, alter the budget but not in an intensity that an earthquake, like the one which rocked Bohol, can trigger spending adjustments.

So when Yolanda blew away houses, it also knocked down a few of the scaffoldings upon which this budget is made.

And when Zamboanga burned, a small part of the budget was gutted too.

A proposed budget can't be impervious to disasters. When a cluster of catastrophes strike, a proposed budget cannot be immune to changes as well.

Because for it to end up as relevant and responsive, the proposed budget must be amended, adjusted so that it can meet new challenges which were not present during its creation.

Especially one that is reputedly built bottom up. And if it remains true to its "bottom up" credentials, then it must accept that a large part of the "bottom" has changed.

In just the past 90 days, this country had been hit by two typhoons, the latest of which was the strongest on record; a 7.2 magnitude quake; and a failed insurgent takeover of a major city which razed 10,160 homes to the ground.

Yolanda alone affected 11.3 million people or over 10 percent of the population.

The damage from the quadruple hits is so great that it is as if disasters had chosen the Philippines as their convention site this year.

Against this backdrop, what should we do with the proposed budget before us? Will we just let it stand as it is with cosmetic editorial corrections? Or shall we recast it so it can be a tool for reconstruction?

I think the answer to that is as obvious as the shredded coconut trees of Tacloban. The strongest storm on record must create the largest reconstruction fund in history.

I am not, however, calling for a total overhaul of this budget. There is no need to unleash the budgetary equivalent of Yolanda which will leave no item standing in the General Appropriations Bill.

What I am proposing is that we tweak the budget to carve budget space for the reconstruction of Zamboanga, Bohol and Santi- and Yolanda-damaged places.

And on this, I am not the first to make such a proposal. In fact, many of our colleagues here have put forward theirs, by installment, either through bills or statements to the press.

For example, the good Senate President is on record batting for the inclusion of a P10 billion CARE or Calamity Assistance and Relief Efforts Fund in next year's budget.

Our Senate Finance Committee chairman, in between art lessons, I assume, have painted the broad strokes of a reconstruction fund anchored on tapping the P20 B earmarked for unfilled government staff positions.

For his part, Senator Trillanes has filed a National Calamity Recovery, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Fund Bill, to be bankrolled by the Malampaya Fund, his version of a gas-to reconstruction pipeline.

Senators Pia and Alan Cayetano have both proposed the rechanneling of the Senate's P4.8 B PDAF to reconstruction. On this, I agree that we should pound pork barrels into plows, and houses, and schools, and hospitals.

Senator Loren Legarda has suggested an invigorated National Greening Program as a source of cash-for-work jobs for victims and as a way of boosting their communities resistance to risks.

I have also read in the papers that Senator Binay is calling for a moratorium in the payment of LGU debts.

On my part, I have proposed a raft of proposals but let me just cite three :

  • The realignment of two items in the Unprogrammed Fund - the opaque P30 B Risk Management Program and the vague P25 B Debt Management Program - for the rebuilding of hospitals and schools, the construction of homes, and additional subsidy to local governments

  • The mobilization of a portion of the P70 billion Coco Levy Fund for the rehabilitation of coconut and other farm lands

  • The utilization of the Malampaya Fund for the restoration of power in storm-damaged areas

In my view, not all proposals require the appropriation of funds. Some could be about rewriting the provisions governing their use.

For example, we can propose the acceleration of IRA releases, or the prioritization of disaster-areas in school construction.

We can even reiterate in the General Provisions of the GAB, the tax-free treatment of donated relief goods coursed through the government.

In the case of nipping amounts from programs and tucking them into calamity relief, the proposed budget presents many opportunities.

By simply deducting P500 million from the bureaucracy's P12.3 billion travel fund for 2014, we can already build 900 temporary bunkhouses that can house 10,800 families.

By lopping off P1 billion from the P12.1 billion allotted for utilities like electricity and water, we can have the money to repair 3,000 classrooms.

Kaltasan lang po natin ng P200 million ang P4.7 billion na budget para sa text-talk-and-chat, ay pwede na po tayong magpagawa ng 20,000 na banca para sa mga mangingisda , which we should do, because relief is giving them cans of sardines. Rehabilitation is about empowering them to fish again.

I know that all of you here are percolating similar, if not better, proposals, and I am sure that the good chairman of the Finance committee will take all of them into consideration at the proper time.

If the reconstruction fund were a tapestry, these will be the threads that will be used in weaving it.

I cannot, however, divine, Mr. President, what will become of our proposals. The threat of a veto is always there. The possibility of their non-acceptance by the Bigger House can't be ruled out.

But instead of being immobilized by fear, let us act on the belief that the better angels of their nature will prevail.

After all, I am heartened by the fact that the administration is crowdsourcing ideas on how to bring as many people on the path to recovery as fast as possible. This will be in response to their call.

And, let us assure them that we will be doing it responsibly. Tweaking the budget shouldn't be read as weakening it. On the contrary, it strengthens it by infusing inputs which were absent during its preparation.

We're also not turning the budget upside down. Remember that the P20 billion proposed by Senator Escudero is not even 1 percent of the total budget.

At sadyang mas malaki po talaga ang pangangailangan. Sa sobrang barat na po na food budget na P50 bawat tao, bawat araw - ito na yung sinasabi nila na Philippine prison standards - ay gugugol tayo ng P210 million sa loob ng siyamnapung araw para sa 1.4 million na katao na pati ang kalan at kaldero ay tinangay ni Yolanda. Increasing the reconstruction fund will certainly do more good than harm. Let us build on what Senator Escudero has started. Even if increased calamity relief would nudge the deficit a little bit up, it is still the best tack, because we can't scrimp our way out of a disaster, we can only spend our way out of it.

Huwag po tayong matakot sa budget deficit. Ang katakutan natin ay ang deficit sa aid.

Whatever the fate of our suggestions will be, at least we can tell our people - those who mourn loved ones, those who queue for food, those who spend dark nights in destroyed homes - that we did our duty in making a budget made possible by their tax payments an instrument of their salvation.

In times of disaster, the role of a leader is to be a dealer of hope.

And so must the national budget. Without that, this budget will be weighed and found wanting.

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