Sotto says lawmakers to convene special session for COVID-19 funding, discusses salient points

Published March 21, 2020, 12:00 AM

by manilabulletin_admin

By Vanne Elaine Terrazola

Lawmakers will convene a special session on Monday (March 23) to discuss the measure that would give the government more funds to combat the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic and its immediate impacts on the country.

Senate President Vicente "Tito" Sotto III  (Ali Vicoy / MANILA BULLETIN)
Senate President Vicente “Tito” Sotto III
(Ali Vicoy / MANILA BULLETIN)

Senate President Vicente Sotto III announced to reporters Saturday that the special session will be held at 10 a.m., after finalizing in a meeting with their House counterparts and officials of the executive department the draft bill to be tackled by Congress.

The bill, if passed by Congress, would give President Duterte the authority to “realign necessary financing to address the COVID-19 emergency crisis,” Sotto said.

The Senate leader said officials are looking at allowing the realignment of some P200 billion of appropriated government funds for two months, while strict quarantine measures are being enforced in Luzon and other areas of the country.

He was quick to clarify that this does not mean that the month-long enhanced community quarantine imposed over Luzon will be extended from April to May.

“But better to be prepared,” Sotto said.

He said the projected amount could also be lower that the P200 billion they initially discussed. No specific amount will be stated in the bill that they would approve.

It also does not yet include amounts for economic stimulus packages to help cushion the effects of COVID-19 on the economy.

“Sa resumption na ‘yon (That will be taken up during out resumption). Fast-break ito (This is just a fast break),” he told reporters.

But the money, he said, will be primarily for “food and cash (assistance) to 16.5 million families nationwide.”

The additional COVID-19 contingency fund will be taken from available funds in the budgets of government-owned owned and -controlled corporations, “but that will be in the regulations, not in the bill,” Sotto said.

Sotto said he will send copies of the draft bill to his colleagues in the Senate for study.

Members of the Senate and House of Representatives met with officials of Duterte’s Cabinet on Saturday afternoon to discuss government efforts against COVID-19 and other crises that may arise from the implementation of the community quarantine.

In the meeting were Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea, Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III, Budget Secretary Wendel Avisado, Interior Secretary Eduardo Año, and Presidential Peace Adviser Carlito Galvez Jr.

House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano was also in the meeting, along with Deputy Speaker and Camarines Sur 2nd district Rep. Luis Raymund Villafuerte; and appropriations committee chair, ACT-CIS party-list Rep. Eric Yap.

The Senate was represented by Sotto and senators Pia Cayetano and Christopher Go.

Unused funds

In a radio interview on Saturday afternoon, Sen. Panfilo Lacson said the government may tap some P989 billion of unused funds from the 2019 national budget for the COVID-19 response.

The figure was according to the Statement of Appropriations Allotment, Obligations, and Balances provided by the Department of Budget and Management to his office, which includes obligated and unreleased funds as of September 2019.

“Of couse ‘di na rin accurate ‘yon, kasi ‘di pa kasama last quarter of 2019. Nasa first quarter pa lang tayo ng 2020, meron pang ‘di nagagamit, so madadagdagan pa ‘yon,” he told DWIZ.

(Of course that is not accurate anymore, because that amount does not yet include the unused funds in the last quarter of 2019. And we are still in the first quarter of 2020, so that could increase.)

Lacson said local government units with minimal calamity funds should be prioritized in the national government’s assistance packages, as well as those whose calamity budgets have dried up due to recent disasters, such as the Taal Volcano eruption.

“So ito ‘yong babalansehin natin, kung paanong mabibigyan sila ng ayuda from the national government (So we would have to strike a balance as to how much the LGUs will receive from the national government),” he said.

Legislators, in the special session, would also have to discuss aid to daily wage earners who are most affected by the quarantine measures.

The Department of Labor and Employment has not yet provided data on how many daily wage earners were displaced, Lacson said.

While he supports granting President Duterte the authority to realign funds, Lacson said it is still Congress that would identify where, how, and to whom the budget will be given.

Session

As far as the Senate is concerned, Sotto said most senators have committed to attend the special session next week.

He earlier said they would still observe social distancing and other precautionary measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

As for the 302-member House of Representatives, Sotto said Cayetano gave the assurance that they will have no problem with obtaining a quorum.

 
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