By Vanne Elaine Terrazola
Budget isn’t a problem at all.
This was the assurance of Senate President Vicente Sotto III on April 7, Tuesday, as he allayed President Duterte’s concerns over the funding for the cash aid to poor families displaced by the quarantine measures imposed to control the spread of COVID-19.
Duterte, in his address to the nation on April 6, lamented that the P275 billion initially allocated for the two-month emergency subsidy program for 18 million low-income households would not be enough to cover for all the beneficiaries.
“I’m calling on the Secretary of Finance to generate [funds]. Magnakaw ka, maghiram ka—wala akong pakialam—i-produce mo ‘yong pera kasi ‘pag naubos na ito, hindi ko malaman (Steal, borrow—I don’t care—produce the money because if this runs out, I don’t know what will happen),” the President said in his pre-recorded speech.
Despite these pronouncements, Sotto, on the other hand, said, “Budget is no concern or problem at all.”
“The President knows that,” he told reporters in a text message.
The Senate leader also expressed confidence that the national government could address the need for more funds for the financial aid, which could extend to middle-class families.
“Yes, kaya (the government can do that). I’m sure he (Sec Dominguez) can find additional funds,” Sotto said.
The executive branch can tap the unused funds from the P4.1-trillion national budget for this year, he noted.
“Hindi pa nga ginagalaw ‘yong 2020 [General Appropriations Act] except the usual first quarter expenditures. Life is most important, money can be restored later,” he said.
The “Bayanihan to Heal As One” Act authorized the President to “reprogram, reallocate, and realign” savings from the appropriations in the executive department under the 2020 budget to programs addressing the COVID-19 emergency. These include social amelioration for affected communities, and for the recovery of severely affected areas, sectors, and industries, the law stated.
Sen. Panfilo Lacson also recalled Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez telling the Upper Chamber’s members during their March 23 special session that a grant from the Asian Development Bank and a “standby loan” from the World Bank for may be tapped for COVID-19 response, aside from the P275 billion social amelioration fund taken from unused allocations for government-owned and controlled corporations.
He said there is also some P600 billion worth of unused appropriations of several agencies in the 2019 national budget according to the Department of Budget and Management.
Lacson said local government units, under the Bayanihan Act, are allowed to disburse more than five percent of their calamity funds, so they “can top up what the national govt is giving out.”
Sen. Imee Marcos, meanwhile, said she “beg[s] to disagree” with the President as she claimed that savings from the 2019 budget, as well as contingency funds, can be used to augment the emergency subsidy program.
Sen. Ramon Revilla also believed that the DoF will be able to fund an increased number of beneficiaries in the subsidy program, citing powers granted by the Bayanihan law.
“Matindi na ang epekto ng ECQ. Hindi na lang poorest of the poor ang kumakalam ang sikmura. Dapat lahat ng wala nang makain maabutan ng tulong,” Revilla said in a statement.