It is that time of the year again when we in Congress start buckling down to work on what some consider to be the most important law year in and year out—the country’s national budget. To emphasize just how important this measure is, in the Senate, the traditional practice is for all the attention to be on the deliberations on the proposed budgets of the different agencies and government offices, meaning all the other hearings take a back seat as much as possible.
The challenge we faced during the debates on the 2021 General Appropriations Act was particularly tough considering that we were in the middle of a pandemic and we had to balance the operational requirements of the agencies with the responses to the impacts of COVID-19.
The task in front of us in the preparations for the 2022 national budget is no less challenging. We are still under a national public health emergency and with the emergence of new COVID-19 variants such as the Delta, we have seen a spike in cases that outnumber even those recorded during the first few months of the pandemic last year.
Under this COVID-19 regime, the situation on the ground is changing constantly and rapidly. The requirements of our frontline agencies can change in a month or within weeks. And so what is contained in the National Expenditure Program (NEP) or the Executive branch’s proposal to Congress for the 2022 national budget could already be outdated when the so-called budget season begins.
The situation is somewhat understandable given how the budget process works in the country. Our Constitution requires the President to submit to Congress the proposed national budget within 30 days from the opening of its regular session or by the third or fourth week of August every year.
As such, the agencies are required to submit their budget proposals early in the year so that the DBM will be able to prepare the voluminous document and have it ready for submission to Congress by the opening of its regular session on the fourth Monday of July. Given the current situation (particularly with the Delta variant), it is understandable that a lot of key expenditures are not captured in the budget document. This is why I suggest that agencies should be allowed to submit revisions to their proposed budgets to reflect new developments brought about by the pandemic.
During last week’s briefing of the Development Budget Coordinating Committee (DBCC) on the P5.024-trillion national budget for 2022, we took note of the absence of some key items related to the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Among these are vaccines for minors, the provision of special risk allowance (SRA) for health workers, cash aid or ayuda, loans for micro, small and medium enterprises, and funding for testing and contact tracing.
On the vaccination of children aged 12 to 17, something which we pushed for earlier this year and has since been adopted by our Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) pointed out that the 2022 NEP only contains funding for the purchase of booster shots for individuals who have already completed their jabs in the amount of P45 billion under the unprogrammed fund. No funding was provided for the inoculation of minors mainly because the FDA came out with its amended emergency use authorization for Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine in June and for Moderna’s vaccine in September to allow its use on children within that age range.
For the SRA, a monthly benefit we provided to our health workers under the Bayanihan 1 and 2 laws, the DBM did not include funding for this in the 2022 budget in light of the expiration of the two laws. As the sponsor and author of the Bayanihan 2, it is clear to me that the SRA, along with several other benefits for health workers, should continue even after the law expires for as long as the state of public health emergency declared by President Duterte is in place. In fact, the President has just extended the period from September 13, 2021 to September 12, 2022.
This coming September 24, the Committee on Finance, of which I sit as chairman, will conduct a public hearing on Senate Bill 2371 that seeks to ensure the SRA and other benefits intended for public and private health workers will continue to be provided even after the expiration of the Bayanihan laws. Senator Richard Gordon and I jointly filed the bill in response to the request by the Department of Health for Congress to pass a law for this purpose.
With the emergence of Delta and the other COVID variants, the requirements of our frontline agencies are constantly moving. The situation is changing rapidly and so must our processes pertaining to the submission of the national budget. The spread of COVID has been rapid and our budget must be able to keep up with it.
Sen. Sonny Angara has been in public service for 17 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