House starts plenary debates on 2021 budget
“The next few weeks will be very challenging, and I appeal to our colleagues for their cooperation, unity and professionalism,” ACT-CIS party-list Rep. Eric Yap, who chairs the powerful House appropriations committee, said.
The STAR/Felicer Santos
House starts plenary debates on 2021 budget
Delon Porcalla (The Philippine Star) - September 28, 2020 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines — The House of Representatives will start today plenary debates on the P4.5-trillion national budget for 2021 that the executive department has proposed.

It may take two weeks before the measure is sent to the Senate.

“The next few weeks will be very challenging, and I appeal to our colleagues for their cooperation, unity and professionalism,” ACT-CIS party-list Rep. Eric Yap, who chairs the powerful House appropriations committee, said.

“This is the people’s budget, and it is our obligation to make sure that the national budget will not only be passed on time, but ultimately, it will respond to the growing needs of our countrymen,” Yap added.

More work needs to be done, according to Yap, as he expressed hope that the entire budget process will not be delayed by whatever issue that Congress may face in the coming days, bearing in mind Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano’s vow to finish the budget at the soonest time possible.

The chamber passed last Friday House Bill 7727 or General Appropriations Bill at the committee level after 15 days of budget briefings. It has been described by officials as the biggest economic stimulus during the pandemic.

Yap is expected to deliver his sponsorship speech for the approved bill at the plenary today.

Deputy Speaker Raneo Abu said the House is prepared to start and finish in record time the passage of the 2021 national budget, just like what they did last year in approving the P4.1-trillion 2020 General Appropriations Act.

“The timely passage of the national budget is very crucial to our economic recovery from the effects of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. We are united with the common goal to get the country back on its feet,” the Batangas representative said.

Albay Rep. Joey Salceda, who chairs the House ways and means committee, lauded Yap for doing a good job.

“Eric Yap is working hard and works well with House Majority Leader Martin Romualdez. Upon the instructions of Speaker Cayetano, the schedules are well-grouped and assignments are well-organized,” Salceda said.

At the same time, he has filed House Bill 7760 or the Financial Technology Industry Development Bill that will help develop a thriving financial technology (fintech) sector in the country.

“Make no mistake: we are in the game for fintech investments. We have 74 million smartphone users who spend 10 hours a day on the internet,” Salceda said, noting that more and more fintech firms are fleeing Hong Kong’s regulatory jitters and saturated Asian markets.

“That is one of the biggest consumer markets for digital products in the world. For market-seeking firms, we are probably one of the most attractive,” the senior administration lawmaker said.

Meanwhile, Quezon City Rep. Precious Hipolito-Castelo supported the plan of the Department of Health (DOH) to prescribe a single, common price for the reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) or swab test for suspected coronavirus carriers.

“The price should be affordable to the poor to encourage them to subject themselves to RT-PCR screening if they show any symptom of infection,” Castelo said.

Based on information she received, RT-PCR tests’ cost varies from P3,500, which is the price the Philippine National Red Cross charges, to a high of P12,500, the rate that some private hospitals impose on persons who avail themselves of their drive-through services and who want results to be available in 24 hours.

Government hospitals are charging higher rates than the Red Cross, according to Castelo.

“Based on prevailing prices, I am suggesting that an affordable rate would be P2,000. The results should be available in 24 hours,” she said.

‘Not responsive to pandemic’

The proposed P4.5-trillion national budget for 2021 is not responsive to the COVID-19 pandemic as it does not have funding for the grant of emergency cash assistance to distressed sectors as the country awaits the roll-out of vaccines, Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said yesterday.

“The way I see it, however, the proposed budget for 2021 will not be able to respond to the crisis sufficiently given the cut in the budget for the social service sector and the absence of a (SAP),” Drilon told radio station dzBB.

He said the financial assistance or the social amelioration program (SAP) should be continued and funded in next year’s budget as officials of the Duterte administration projected that the vaccines may be available in the country in the second half of 2021.

This means the economically debilitating COVID-19 restrictions would remain in place, millions of Filipinos would remain unemployed and thousands of businesses would remain closed, he added.

The senator appealed to Congress to increase the budget of the DOH and the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) in order to bolster the government’s ability to respond to the pandemic and address the plight of the poor.

He also hit the DSWD for not distributing P10 billion to the poor. The P10-billion unused budget is part of the funding for the SAP under the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act (Bayanihan 1) that the agency said it did not release due to the “double compensation” and the failure of local government units (LGUs) to provide the list of beneficiaries.

For Drilon, however, the DSWD should have been more lenient during these “extraordinary” times in the country’s history.

He maintained that the unused funds should be distributed to the poor, opposing the DSWD’s insistence to use it for livelihood assistance instead.

“What the people need today is ayuda. The livelihood assistance, let other agencies do it. What the DSWD is mandated to do is to provide assistance to the poor,” Drilon said.

He also cited the decrease in the budget of the DOH, saying it could affect the government’s ability to curb the pandemic.

The DOH’s total budget for 2020, including additional appropriation from Bayanihan 1 and its successor, Bayanihan to Recover as One Act, amounts to P180 billion, according to Drilon, but it was reduced to only P131 billion in the National Expenditures Program (NEP).

Palace hopes no delay

Malacañang expressed hope that the passage of next year’s budget would not be delayed following the approval of the spending bill at the House committee level.

“On the part of the executive branch and as stated by the President, we want the budget approved immediately... We do not want a repeat of the delays in the (passage of the) budget especially during a pandemic. The government relies on that budget... for its programs and activities in 2021,” Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles said in a live online session last Saturday.

“When the budget is delayed, there will be delays in the implementation (of programs). That should not happen, especially during the time of COVID... The faster the budget will be approved, the better,” Nograles added.

He noted that the proposed 2021 outlay would fund the government’s pandemic response and vital programs in health care, education, transportation and infrastructure.

House leaders have given assurances that the issue over the chamber’s leadership would not delay the passage of the budget.

Under a term-sharing deal brokered by President Duterte, Cayetano would be the speaker until October 2020 while Marinduque Rep. Lord Allan Velasco would succeed him and assume the post until June 2022.

Deputy Speaker Luis Raymund Villafuerte, however, claimed in a recent television interview that the majority of lawmakers wants Cayetano to remain as the leader of the chamber.

Presidential spokesman Harry Roque has said Duterte would not interfere in the House leadership squabble but insisted that the approval of the 2021 budget is “non-negotiable.” –  Paolo Romero, Alexis Romero

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