The passage of a responsive budget fit for the country’s coronavirus pandemic and recession response should be the topmost duty of the 18th Congress once it opens its deliberations for next year’s national budget, Senator Risa Hontiveros said on Thursday.
“We’re on the eve of once again opening our budget debates, where I do agree with them, top of our duties will be to pass a COVID and recession-responsive budget for 2022,” Hontiveros said during a television interview.
The senator made the statement in response to the calls of several civic organizations earlier to hold a special session of Congress to extend the validity of the Bayanihan to Recover as One Act (Bayanihan 2) which expired on Wednesday, 30 June.
As of 27 June, more than P18.4B earmarked for the government’s Covid-19 programs remained unutilized. It included P6.59B for health workers and coronavirus tests, P4.19B for digital education programs and P800 million for contact-tracing.
“I know there was a coalition of tens of civil society organizations that launched a signature campaign appealing to President Duterte and to the Congress to extend the validity of the Bayanihan 2 funds. We did that from last year to the end of the middle of this year,” she said.
Since the budget has expired, Hontiveros noted that the said items should be prioritized in the 2022 General Appropriations Act and added that the Senate is “seriously” considering the passage of a third Bayanihan measure.
She stressed the need for continuous programs to fund the country’s healthcare programs and stimulus packages that will help mitigate the ill-effects of the pandemic.
The P401-billion Bayanihan 3 bill was already approved on third and final reading at the House of Representatives but its counterpart in the Upper House is still on.
Senator Sonny Angara, chair of the Committee on Finance, earlier said it will be among the bills the chamber will discuss once the sessions resume on 26 July, in time for the final State of the Nation Address (SoNA) of President Rodrigo Duterte.
Bayanihan 2 provision still applicable
While Bayanihan 2 has expired, the senator assured healthcare workers of continued benefits under the law.
He explained that specific provisions of Bayanihan 2 will continue as the long state of national emergency declared by President Duterte remains in effect.
These include the compensation for those who contract Covid-19 in the line of duty; the grant of special risk allowance; actual hazard duty pays for those serving in the front lines; medical expense coverage in case of exposure to Covid or work-related injury or disease; and the provision of life insurance, accommodation, transportation and meals.
“One of the key features of Bayanihan 2 is the benefits provided to our heroic health workers who continuously put their lives at risk in order to save lives. It was the clear intent of Congress that the grant of these benefits should not cease even after Bayanihan 2 and the law extending the availability of B2 funding expires,” Angara said in a statement.
“The battle against Covid-19 and its variants does not end with the expiry of these laws so we must continue to provide support to our health workers at least until the state of national emergency is lifted by the President,” he added.
Other provisions that will continue are: lifting of the 30 percent cap on the quick response fund; prohibition on private schools, colleges and universities receiving grants from retrenching their employees for a period of nine months from receipt of grant and the financial relief to agrarian reform beneficiaries.
2022 budget may be used for politics
In a separate interview, Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon advised the public to safeguard the national budget and watch out for “excess fats” that may be used by some politicians to fuel their campaigns in next year’s national elections.
He expressed a similar sentiment to Hontiveros and said that the budget will be the “most important piece of legislation” of the coming Congress.
“I must put a warning: everyone should watch out because next year is an election year,” Drilon said.
“The most important piece of legislation in the coming Congress is the budget. The budget is a major instrument for the recovery of our economy. Therefore, next year will be very critical in terms of the budget, because, first, 2022 is an election year, and, second, next year is critical for our economic recovery,” Drilon stressed.
“We have to make sure the money collected from the taxes are spent properly and not for election purposes,” he added.