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Pimentel to petition SC to nix P450b in unprogrammed funds

Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel III
Macon Ramos-Araneta, Maricel Cruz & Charles Dantes

Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel III said he would file a petition before the Supreme Court this week to challenge as unconstitutional the additional P450 billion in unprogrammed funds in the 2024 national budget.

“The target is this week, but of course, it depends on the lawyers’ readiness,” Pimentel said about the timing of his petition.

He also said he has been talking to a member of the House of Representatives who wants to join him in filing a case.

Earlier, Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman said he agreed with Pimentel on the “fatal defects” brought about by the unprogrammed funds, but the senator said it wasn’t Lagman he was talking to.

Pimentel said the budget ran afoul of the Constitution on two counts. The first, he said, is that there should be no expenditures from public coffers without an appropriation made by law.

The other provision is that Congress cannot increase the appropriation set by the President.

“Of course, we will include additional arguments to include the presidential certification of urgency,” Pimentel said, complaining that the final budget could not be scrutinized because it is thousands of pages long.

He recalled that this is the third year in a row that unprogrammed funds have been abused.

For 2022, he said Congress added P100 billion to the national budget, which was more than the President’s proposal.

For 2023, he said that close to P300 billion was added to the unprogrammed funds.

“If we do not stop this practice, this would really be abused. The practice will be abused. What is worse, the practice is unconstitutional. So, let’s nip it in the bud,” he said.

He said if there are funds available and important expenditures, it would be better to request for a supplemental budget.

Former senator Panfilo Lacson said if the Supreme Court does not clarify the issue, nothing can prevent Congress from adding P1 trillion or even more in the succeeding budget deliberations.

As a result, the country would borrow more to fund the excess in unprogrammed funds under the National Expenditure Program.

He said this was a bad precedent.

Albay Rep. Joey Sarte Salceda, chairman of the House committee of ways and means, said anyone can file any question against any law before the Supreme Court, and this applies even to the General Appropriations Act.

But Salceda defended the 2024 budget, saying Congress can increase unprogrammed funds.

He said the question of whether or not unprogrammed funds were covered by the constitutional prohibition on increasing appropriations recommended by the President had been discussed in Congress, and that the Department of Budget and Management had guided lawmakers on this account.

“This question was discussed in Congress, and we took the effort, during budget deliberations, to seek guidance from both the Executive through the DBM and the records of the Constitutional Commission,” Salceda said.

Salceda said the DBM wrote his office to clarify that unprogrammed appropriations were not part of the fiscal program.

“As such, only the programmed appropriations are subject to the Article VI, Section 25 (1) of the Constitution, or the prohibition against increasing appropriations recommended by the President,” Salceda said.

“In short, the DBM said Congress can increase the unprogrammed appropriations as proposed,” he added.

But ultimately, the Supreme Court will decide the issue, he said.

“Once a case is filed in the Supreme Court, the Court will decide on the matter,” Salceda said.

“I expect it to decide as it has always done so: with the maximum liberality and presumption of regularity granted to Congress in the exercise of its exclusive powers,” he added.

In a statement issued Wednesday, the DBM said unprogrammed appropriations are outside the approved national budget for 2024 and would only be used to address unexpected expenses and priority projects.

“Allow us to emphasize that unprogrammed appropriations are standby appropriations, outside the approved government fiscal program, which serve as an important tool for the government to address unforeseen expenditures and prioritize essential programs and projects,” DBM said in its statement.

“It is not included in the P5.7676 trillion FY 2024 National Budget by Appropriation Source, given that it refers to standby appropriations that are also proposed for legislation and to be authorized by Congress,” it added.

The DBM issued the statement in response to Pimentel’s challenge.

It also clarified that the unprogrammed appropriations would not be automatically allocated unless several funding conditions were met.

If unprogrammed funds are to be used, government agencies must submit the required documentation before accessing the standby funds, it said.

Earlier, Lagman, president of the opposition Liberal Party, said the 2024 GAA must be challenged at the Supreme Court.

“A constitutional challenge before the [SC] is in order to cleanse the GAA of a fatal defect and give guidance to the Congress and the President in the future budget seasons,” Lagman said in a statement.

President Marcos signed the 2024 national budget on Dec. 20, 2023.

Lagman said the 2024 GAA, which took effect on Monday, Jan. 1 “suffers a constitutional infirmity insofar as the bicameral conference committee inserted P449.5 billion in excess of the unprogrammed appropriations of P281.9 billion recommended by the President in the national budget or the National Expenditure Program (NEP).”

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