Not a priority bill

As expected, outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte bared a short list of his administration’s priority bills during his ultimate state of the nation address (SONA) last Monday. For the remaining eleven months of his office, President Duterte asked leaders and members of the 18th Congress to approve into law these pending bills before they all together step down from power on June 30, 2022.

President Duterte identified only 11 priority bills, mostly economic measures geared to beef up government’s campaign to restore the “robust” Philippine economic growth derailed by the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. Conspicuously not included is the proposed 2022 General Appropriations Act (GAA) that could henceforth bankroll the government’s anti-COVID measures.

When the COVID-19 outbreak started in our country in 2019, understandably, the ensuing pandemic-level expenses were unprecedented.

The President thanked the 18th Congress for immediately passing into law the Bayanihan Heal As One Act that granted emergency authority to re-align government spending to anti-COVID measures such as putting up swab testing laboratories; construction of isolation facilities; ramping up hospital services; cash subsidies to Filipinos dislocated by the lockdowns, among other things.

The Chief Executive also lauded the lawmakers for the passage into law of another emergency funding for anti-COVID measures called as Bayanihan-2, or Recover As One Act to implement free vaccination programs; additional cash subsidies to include COVID-impacted industries, among other things. And now, a proposed Bayanihan-3 is being pushed in both the Senate and at the House of Representatives even as there is already a proposed P5 trillion budget prepared to include funds needed to slow down the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in the Philippines.

Also ostensibly not in the list of the President’s urgent administration bills is the proposed amendment of the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) to postpone to 2025 the elections at the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao (BARMM). The regional elections are set to take place simultaneously with the scheduled May 9, 2022 national and local elections. If BARMM elections are postponed, it will also extend the terms of the present officials of the Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA).

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President Duterte signed BOL under Republic Act (RA) 11054 on July 26, 2018 that created the BARMM in pursuit of the peace initiatives by the past six administrations before him. In his SONA, the President cited the BOL sought “to correct injustice” to Filipino Muslims in Mindanao. In the same SONA, President Duterte frankly admitted he, too, is disheartened by the slow progress of the Bangon Marawi Task Force which he created to undertake the massive rehabilitation of the strife-torn city of Marawi in Lanao del Sur, also part of the BARMM.

As the chairman of the Senate committee on electoral reforms, Sen. Imee Marcos called out attention on it amid lobbying for the postponement of BARMM elections. After much fanfare and high expectations, she deplored, the BARMM have been unfortunately been slow despite the P160 billion in public funds poured into the region from 2020 to 2021.  The rest of the country is yet to see one completed big-ticket project funded for the BARMM, she added.

“Despite these allocated appropriations, there is too little progress and change in the BARMM,” Marcos pointed out. Based on these reports reaching her, Sen. Marcos filed Senate Resolution No. 729, directing the Senate Committee on Finance to conduct an inquiry into the much-reported slow progress rehabilitation and development projects in conflict-affected communities in the BARMM.

Reports of unfinished public housing and road projects, several months delayed if not unpaid teacher salaries and wanting basic services remain not uncommon in BARMM. Despite official announcement of the Region’s Ministry of Public Works would start the current year with P15 billion infrastructure projects, the BARMM people have yet to see any concrete projects more than half a year later. Not a single hollow block is yet to be set in place for the construction of a town hall in Maguindanao itself – the seat of the BTA – after a much-publicized groundbreaking ceremony in April this year.

“It is also important for Congress to be informed on the progress of the transition process, implementation of programs and the proper utilization of funds, as well as the reasons for delay which are not attributable to the dire effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and to determine other legislative measures, if necessary, to be legislated by Congress in order to promote the long-term vision of meaningful growth in the Bangsamoro Region,” Marcos explained in the Senate Resolution she filed on May 24.

Specifically, she pointed to the GAA of 2020 which initially allocated P7 billion in an block grant of P63.6 billion, and a Special Development Fund (SDF) of P5 billion to the BARMM. In addition, under the 2021 GAA, the BARMM was also given an annual appropriation of P8.6 billion, an annual block grant of P71.6 billion, and another P5 billion of SDF. “With the huge appropriations made in the GAA for 2020 and 2021, it is imperative for Congress to determine the status of the projects implemented especially since the Bangsamoro Government is still in its transition stage,” Marcos pointed out.

Earlier, President Duterte told the BTA officials they must convince the legislators on their request for an extension of their term if the BARMM elections would be postponed. Attending the SONA via zoom, the PTV-4 camera caught BTA interim chief Minister Al Haj Murad Ebrahim visibly poker-faced when President Duterte reiterated his commitment to end the Muslim separatists problem in Mindanao.

Apparently, President Duterte remains unconvinced on the proposed postponement of the BARMM elections by not including it in his priority bills. Otherwise, it could justify an extension of their terms of office that could backfire on President Duterte.

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