‘No politics in P200 billion aid release’

Rainier Allan Ronda, Ding Cervantes, Pia Lee-Brago, Alexis Romero, Paolo Romero (The Philippine Star) - April 2, 2020 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines — There should be no politics involved in the distribution of the P200-billion aid earmarked by the government for poor families and displaced workers during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, according to Sen. Bong Go.

As chair of the Senate committee on health and member of the joint oversight committee overseeing the implementation of the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act, Go stressed yesterday that the priority at this time is to defeat COVID-19 and provide cash and food assistance to those affected most by the crisis.

Go urged the government to speed up the release of financial aid to displaced workers.

A Malacañang report submitted to Congress showed the government can tap more than P800 billion from budgets of agencies, unreleased funds, dividends and a repurchase deal with the central bank for the fight against COVID-19.

Data from President Duterte’s report on the implementation of the Luzon-wide lockdown showed that more than P200 billion would come from unreleased appropriations under the special purpose funds.

Unreleased appropriations consist of budgetary support to government corporations (P145.717 billion) and allocation to local government units from the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (P1.047 billion), special shares of local governments in the proceeds of national taxes (P28.414 billion), barangay officials death benefits fund (P50 million), local government support fund (P27.31 billion), special shares of local governments in the proceeds of fire code fees (P365 million) and the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (P7 billion). The unreleased appropriations totaled P209.907 billion.

The Bayanihan Act, which gives Duterte additional powers to fight COVID-19, allows the President to consider abandoned any unused or unreleased balance as of March 9, the date of the declaration of state of public health emergency. All such funds, including future collections and receipts, shall be deemed appropriated for measures to address COVID-19.

The report said the budget department has also asked three agencies to use their released allotment to accommodate their respective COVID-19 response activities.

These agencies are the social welfare department, which has allotment releases for the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program, a cash transfer program that provides cash assistance to low-income families (P108.765 billion), social pension for indigents (P23.184 billion), assistance for indigents in crisis situations (P6.608 billion) and quick response fund (P1.25 billion); the health department, which has allocation for medical assistance to indigent patients (P9.44 billion) and quick response funds (P500 million); and the energy department, which has a budget for a livelihood and internship program for disadvantaged and displaced workers (P4.357 billion). The total amount involved in the allotment releases of the three agencies is 154.105 billion. The national government also added P300 billion to its cash reserves by forging a repurchase agreement facility with the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP).

Under the deal, the national government can convert up to P300 billion of government securities holdings into cash and will have to repurchase them within six months.

The Bureau of Treasury (BTr) has said the agreement is the most cost-effective way to provide an extra lifeline to the national government as it combats COVID-19.

Duterte said the finance department has also collected P100 billion worth of dividends from government-owned and controlled corporations (GOCCs), including excess and unprogrammed revenues. The BTr and the budget department have also crafted guidelines that would enable the transfer of excess and unauthorized balances of national government agencies and GOCCs to support the social amelioration program for sectors affected by the lockdown.

“The BTr has identified an estimated amount of over P100 billion as eligible for the ‘cash sweep,’” Duterte said in the report.

‘Utilize funds immediately’

Sen. Sonny Angara said the distribution of cash assistance to low-income households, indigent senior citizens and all other individuals unable earn a living due to the implementation of enhanced community quarantine in Luzon and parts of the Visayas and Mindanao should be carried out without delay.

“We need to utilize these funds immediately… during these times, it’s only help from the government that our poor families can rely on for essential goods like food and medicines,” he said.

“We thank the DSWD for heeding our call to continue the provision of the monthly social pension for our indigent seniors and to deliver the P500 stipend to them door-to-door. Seniors are the most vulnerable to the COVID-19 virus and in the case of the indigent seniors, they have literally nothing, which is why the government’s support to them should be uninterrupted,” Angara said.

The Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO) will release P447 million as financial assistance to 81 government hospitals across the country to ensure they run smoothly through the community quarantine.

US help

The US government has provided approximately $18.3 million in emergency health and humanitarian assistance to ASEAN member-states since the COVID-19 outbreak began, according to a report released by the US State Department.

“Nearly $4 million in health assistance will help the Philippine government prepare laboratory systems, activate case-finding and event-based surveillance, support technical experts for response and preparedness, risk communication, infection prevention and control and more,” the report read.

Transfer funds

The Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang Mamamalakaya ng Pilipinas said that “instead of allotting a whopping P972.5 billion for infrastructure projects under the Build, Build, Build program of the administration, the government should realign that huge budget to strengthen the health capacity of the country by investing in public health services and programs.”

“If there’s a crucial lesson that this health crisis has taught us, it’s that the government must know its priorities that should now cover basic social services especially on health,” Pamalakaya chair Fernando Hicap said.

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