MANILA, November 17, 2003  (STAR) By Paolo Romero - Even as the wounds inflicted by the impeachment crisis have yet to heal, the House of Representatives resumes today tackling the P864.8-billion national budget for 2004 — a move that needs a united chamber.

A week after marshaling a majority vote to scuttle the second impeachment complaint against Chief Justice Hilario Davide Jr., Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr. vowed yesterday to mobilize large-scale support in the House for the passage of the 2004 General Appropriations Act (GAA).

"We will mobilize wide-ranging support from all the parties to approve the budget this week," De Venecia said.

He said efforts to strengthen the administration coalition to enable the House to work faster are gaining headway.

He said most of the parties in the 226-member House favor the speedy approval of the budget, which was delayed by the impeachment crisis.

De Venecia said the administration coalition in the House, including the ruling Lakas-Christian Muslim Democrats (Lakas-CMD), Nationalist People’s Coalition (NPC), Liberal Party, Nacionalista Party, PDP-Laban, Aksyon Demokratiko, Reporma and a majority of the party-list congressmen, including Akbayan, will now focus their efforts in the coming weeks on battling poverty and terrorism.

House appropriations committee chairman and Camarines Sur Rep. Rolando Andaya Jr. said crafting a budget out of the insufficient resources at hand is as difficult as resolving the impeachment crisis.

Difficulties aside, Andaya believes succeeding at the juggling act of fixing political polarization in the House and finishing the national budget is possible.

"Reconciliation (with pro-impeachment congressmen) and (budget) appropriation can be done at the same time," he said.

He also said he wants the budget to be "brought out of the Batasan gate" and sent to the Senate as soon as possible. The passage of the budget has been delayed by at least two weeks.

While the 2004 budget is pegged at P864.8 billion, the government can only expect, a best, P671.2 billion next year.

The government will have to borrow at least P1 billion a day to bridge the deficit and pay part of the P3.2 trillion national debt.

Fate Worse Than Debt

Worse than the punishing P271 billion debt service allocation in the budget, Andaya said, is the country’s rapidly rising population rate, which is increasing at a blistering 2.3 percent annually.

"If the budget is our food, then we’ve got more mouths to feed," he said. "Do you think that we can go on producing 1.8 million babies a year without putting a strain on our public resources?" He cited the effects of the baby boom on education to prove the theory that "what you make in the bedroom today will appear in classrooms seven years later."

Andaya said a conservative two percent annual increase in students enrolled in public elementary and high schools will result in 350,000 new students.

There are 17.334 million public school students at the elementary and secondary levels. The quality of education for these students suffers from severe shortages. Recent data show that the country’s public school system lacks 44,000 classrooms, 24.5 million textbooks and 4.8 million school desks, among other shortages.

The government needs to build at least 4,375 classrooms, on a two-classes-per-room basis at a cost of P1.64 billion. The government will also have to hire 8,750 new teachers at a cost of P1.14 billion, Andaya said.

These figures focus "on education alone," Andaya said. "To protect 1.8 million new Filipinos, we must hire 3,600 policemen — that would cost P5.4 billion for their initial salary, guns, equipment and training."

As it is, one-third of the Philippine National Police’s (PNP) beat policemen have no government-issued handguns due to lack of funds.

To feed the increasing number of Filipinos, Andaya said, the government must also invest in irrigation facilities. Next year, the country’s population will rise to 83.9 million, Andaya said.

He recalled that in 1990, the budget was premised on a population of 60 million. His father, Rolando Sr., was House appropriations committee chairman at the time.

"In just 13 years, our population has grown by 22 million," Andaya said. "We have added five Hong Kongs to the number of Filipinos in such a short time."

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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