Senator Alan Peter Cayetano on Friday urged the members of the bicameral conference committee tackling the 2023 national budget to give more attention to agriculture, infrastructure development, financial aid and distribution to families in need, healthcare access, and education, saying these are the top concerns for our “kababayans”.
In a letter addressed to the members of the bicam committee dated December 2, 2022, Cayetano said that his colleagues must align the budget “both with the administration’s agenda and with our kababayans’ biggest socio-economic problems the lack of equal economic opportunities, insufficient wages, and the high prices of necessities like food and medical care.”
The senator pointed out that firstly, the most effective way to address the issue of high food prices – which has driven persistently high inflation nationwide in the last 10 months – is to make the agriculture sector more productive.
He said the agriculture budget “should be responsive to what our farmers and fisherfolk need the most today: aid in high prices of fertilizer and feeds, expansion of our farm-to-market road network, improved irrigation, and the rehabilitation and modernization of fishponds and fisheries support systems.”
“By strengthening support to the agriculture sector through assistance that will lower input costs, the government can boost local food production and eventually bring down the cost of food prices for the Filipino consumer,” Cayetano said.
The senator also brought up the issue of what he described as the outsized proportion of the budget of the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) for 2023 that will be spent on maintenance and rehabilitation works, compared to the funds aligned for constructing new roads and bridges.
According to Cayetano, the government has more than enough money to spend on new and vital infrastructure in the countryside. However, he questioned the decision to allow the DPWH to allocate around P212.5 billion for maintenance and rehabilitation of existing government projects, as well as an additional P166 billion for flood management projects.
“This speaks volumes, not only to the priorities of the department but also to the quality of work that has been done in our public works through the years,” he said in the letter.
Cayetano questioned the lump sum appropriations in the DPWH budget totalling P10 billion which they found during the budget deliberations, intended for projects he described as “ambiguously titled” such as “Construction of Solar Water Supply System Regionwide.” The senator suggested using more neutral project names that will allow the agency more flexibility in implementation, and would prevent it from committing to “untested” and “vague” public works projects.
He also spoke about the existence of at least P200 billion in cash transfers and subsidy programs implemented by different government agencies under the 2023 proposed national budget. The senator suggested that the money instead be given to families outright, and to facilitate the distribution of the subsidies through mobile phone applications.
“Why not make the distribution easier either by giving cash assistance to every Filipino, or by developing and using mobile apps for easier distribution of ayuda?” Cayetano said.
For the health sector, Cayetano proposed in his letter a five-year plan, the start of which could be incorporated into the 2023 budget, that will improve access to healthcare even in far-flung communities.
Key points of the plan include the goal of setting up a fully-equipped and staffed health center in every barangay, upgrading facilities and staff compensation in the country’s biggest hospitals, and ensuring free healthcare and medicines for indigent patients.
He added that while the country’s primary healthcare infrastructure is being built out over the next five years, the government should invest in floating hospitals to be operated by Philippine Coast Guard and the Philippine Navy.
“The budget for this was supposed to be included in the 2021 General Appropriations Bill during the bicam, but was taken out in the last minute. I am praying that this time we can do the opposite and put it in now,” Cayetano said.
The senator also took aim at the K-to-12 program, which he has previously criticized in the Senate budget deliberations for failing to prepare students either for employment or higher education.
“The choice is clear: either fully fund K-to-12 so that students who graduate from the program are sufficiently equipped for work without the necessity of going to college, or we return to K-to-10 and spend the amounts we save from removing two grade levels to improve our basic education,” Cayetano said.
Lastly, he added a warning to his fellow lawmakers to look out for double appropriations and lump sum entries in the 2023 budget, describing these as “unconstitutional.”
The senator appealed in his letter to his colleagues in the bicam committee to see the 2023 budget as a chance to make growth equitable across the country.
“We want an equitable sharing of government resources, and the opportunities for growth and advancement that come with it. We want to bring the benefits of a well-planned and well-executed budget to every purok, barangay, municipality, city, and province,” he said.
“No one must be left behind simply because of the circumstances of his birth — walang iwanan maski saan o sino ka man,” he said.