When we passed the Bayanihan to Recover as One Act (Bayanihan 2) back in August of 2020, every one of us in Congress understood that we had to act swiftly in order to address the urgent needs of all the sectors affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
A total of P165.5 billion was allocated for Bayanihan 2, a significant portion of which went to the health sector for the purchase of COVID-19 vaccines, support for our frontline health workers and for building up our health system as a whole.
Particular emphasis was also given to assisting the micro, small and medium and enterprises (MSMEs) whose operations were drastically affected by the imposition of strict community quarantines in the National Capital Region and other parts of the country. A huge sum was provided to our government financial institutions — Land Bank of the Philippines, Development Bank of the Philippines, Small Business Corporation and the Philippine Guarantee Corporation as capital infusion so that they could provide low-interest loans to the affected entrepreneurs.
Apart from helping the MSMEs to resume their operations, the provision of loans by the GFIs is also intended to support the continued payment of salaries of their employees so that no jobs will be lost.
The transport sector was another target beneficiary of aid under Bayanihan 2. For several months, public utility vehicles were not allowed to ply their routes, forcing the hardworking drivers of jeepneys, and tricycles to resort to asking for alms on the streets just to feed their families.
Education also received its share of the Bayanihan 2 funds to assist the Department of Education in the implementation of its alternative modes of teaching since face-to-face learning is still not allowed. For higher education, funds were provided for the development of smart campuses in the state universities and colleges. We also included funding for the provision of subsidies for qualified students.
Bayanihan 2 was signed into law in September last year and expired on December 19. This apparently was too short a period for the different implementing agencies to utilize the funds allocated to them and so upon the request of the Executive Branch, Congress extended the availability of the appropriations under Bayanihan 2 until June 30, 2021.
We now have less than half a month left before the Bayanihan 2 extension expires and what we are seeing in terms of fund utilization is not encouraging.
Based on data provided by the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) as of May 18, 2021, there are still around P61 billion of the P165.5 billion Bayanihan 2 funds that have not been obligated by the implementing agencies.
When you say that funds are obligated, this means specific programs or projects have been identified and commitments have been made for their implementation.
The data shows that there are a number of agencies with obligation rates below 50 percent and a few that went even below 10 percent.
Underspending has long been an issue with the government and is usually an indication of poor absorptive capacity by the implementing agencies. There are a variety of reasons for the inability or inefficiency of an agency in utilizing the funds allocated to it. Take for instance public works. Several projects identified under the General Appropriations Act end up not being implemented due to right-of-way issues. This has an impact on the economy because public spending is one of the biggest drivers of growth.
In the case of Bayanihan 2, the urgency of spending the remaining funds is more pronounced. We are far from returning to normalcy. The economy is opening up again but not as fast as we would like it to be. Unemployment has worsened at a rate of 8.7 percent in April from 7.1 percent in March. Our teachers and students are struggling to cope with online learning. Businesses have used up all their savings. Farmers and fisherfolk are struggling to make ends meet.
The implementing agencies need to act swiftly. For most of the funds under Bayanihan 2, anything unspent would revert to the National Treasury. This is a disservice to all the Filipinos who badly need the helping hand of the government during this pandemic. (30)
Sen. Sonny Angara has been in public service for more than 16 years. He has authored and sponsored more than 200 laws. He is currently serving his second term in the Senate.
E-mail: [email protected]| Facebook, Twitter & Instagram: @sonnyangara