By Vanne Elaine Terrazola
The Senate is expected to approve soon a bill seeking to allow the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) to use its 2019 rice subsidy fund to buy palay from Filipino farmers affected by the surge in rice imports in the country.
Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri said Thursday that the chamber will fast track the approval of a bill formalizing the authority to be given to the DSWD to use its remaining P6.97-billion rice subsidy budget under the 2019 General Appropriations Act (GAA) to directly buy unmilled rice to local farmers and distribute actual rice to beneficiaries of the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps).
This, following the approval in both houses of Congress of a joint resolution this month to authorize concerned government agencies to use their rice subsidy programs to help farmers cope with the unimpeded importation of rice under the Rice Tariffication Law.
The Supreme Court (SC) recently ruled that a joint resolution cannot be equated to a bill and hence cannot be enacted into a law, saying that “neither the Rules of the Senate nor the Rules of the House of Representatives can amend the Constitution which recognizes that only a bill can become a law.”
Due to the High Court’s ruling, Zubiri on Wednesday, November 27, filed Senate Bill No. 1199 as a substitute to the Senate Joint Resolution No. 8 they approved on final reading last November 4.
Senator Cynthia Villar, chair of the Senate agriculture committee, also filed a similar bill Tuesday.
“We decided to pass a law so there will be no hiccup in our efforts to help the farmers. Joint Resolutions, according to the Supreme Court, are not valid as a law,” Zubiri said told Manila Bulletin in a text message Thursday.
The Senate leader said that like the joint resolution, the bill on the rice subsidy program will be prioritized by the Upper Chamber. He said they expect its approval on final reading before December 11.
Under the Zubiri’s proposal, the DSWD, in coordination with the National Food Authority (NFA), would be mandated to purchase palay from local farmers in the rice producing provinces of Pangasinan, Ilocos Norte, Cagayan, Isabela, Nueva Vizcaya, Oriental Mindoro, Occidental Mindoro, Tarlac, Nueva Edja, Zamboanga del Sur, and Iloilo and distribute rice, instead of cash, to its beneficiaries.
The bills seek to allow the department to use the rice subsidy as provided under the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4PS) in the 2019 GAA.
Villar, for her part, said the DSWD, the Department of Agriculture (DA) and the NFA shall set up the procedure, guidelines, and distribution system.
The DSWD shall submit to Congress a year-end report on the implementation of the program “to determine its performance and effectiveness”, she proposed.
Aside from the DSWD, Zubiri also proposed to encourage local government units having jurisdiction over the covered provinces to purchase the rice requirement of their local hospitals, jails, and other institutions from local farmers.
Under the 2019 GAA, the total allocation for rice subsidies was P33.9 billion, with the DSWD receiving the bulk of it for the 4Ps.
The DSWD said P6.97 billion of its rice subsidy fund this year remains undisbursed.
The 4Ps, which currently has about 4.1 million beneficiaries, grants the rice subsidy in the form of financial assistance amounting to P600 per month, which is equivalent to 20 kilos of rice.
This is on top of the cash assistance given to the same beneficiaries of P300 per month or P3,600 per year.
Local farmers have complained of the declining farm gate prices of palay due to the implementation of Republic Act No. 11203, which allowed the unimpeded entry of rice imports into the country in exchange of tariffs.
Despite calls for its repeal, the administration is bent on implementing the rice tariffication law.