In order to avoid a possible public order and financial crisis, as well as people running out of food next week due to the Luzon lockdown triggered by the coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19), Senate President Vicente Sotto III on Thursday called for a special session with Congress to pass a supplemental budget.
“I am told the people might run out of food by next week. Public order will suffer. We have to remove legal impediments for the use of available funds swiftly,” said Sotto.
“We need to get on our feet and make sure that our people, especially the poorest of the poor, do not worry about going hungry at a time when they should be focusing their attention on staying healthy,” said Sotto.
If President Rodrigo Duterte agrees to a special session, Sotto said they can hold it Friday or Saturday. He said that majority of the senators were amenable to his suggestion.
“Most of the senators concur with my suggestion to the Executive Department for a special session to allow cash subsidy to those affected by the enhanced community quarantine. Money is food. Food is security. Security is peace and order,” Sotto also said.
Lawmakers “should bite the bitter pill” in an emergency situation such as this, he said.
“Isang buhos na yan, dapat from the national government. Local government units (LGUs) will not last a week preparing and feeding their constituents,” he said.
According to Sotto, he raised this concern after an economic expert warned him of what might happen.
“Considering the difficulty of food preparation and distribution now happening,” he said.
He was also informed by Antique Rep. Loren Legarda that there is P36 billion allocation for unconditional transfer (UCT) funds in the 2020 General Appropriations Act (GAA) which have not yet been used.
If the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) cannot use that for one reason or another, Sotto said they can pass a law saying “they should, so they can distribute the cash, nationwide.”
But, he pointed out that they need to remove all legal impediments for the use of available funds swiftly.
Sotto said he has discussed his recommendation with Finance Secretary Sonny Dominguez and a high-level economist.
“I suggest for Congress to pass a food subsidy budget in order to provide for the daily wage earners who lost their income,” Sotto said.
The Senate chief explained that while a P500 per day per family would be the ideal subsidy, a P300/family day assistance will have to do considering the financial constraint that such an additional expenditure would cause the national treasury.
“Compute the NCR poor to be the beneficiaries. Compute the Calabarzon, the Central Luzon (Region 3) poor who will be affected,” said Sotto.
He noted that the rates may vary in the provinces that have access to fish, vegetables and other basic food supplies.
In the NCR, Sotto said the poor do not have access to these.
Sotto said: “Assuming there are three million poorest of the poor in NCR, with each family consisting of five members. That will be 15 million NCR residents who will be assured that their families will not go hungry while the ECQ (enhanced community quarantine) is in place.”
The proposed P300 per family per day subsidy for 30 days in the NCR will amount to about P27 billion. “The experts can extrapolate depending on the number of poor,” Sotto said.
He related that the subsidy scheme can also be applied in other regions that are threatened with limited food supplies because of the “no work, no pay” policy being enforced by private companies.
Sotto said that while he agrees that home quarantine and social distancing is necessary at this time, government should make an exemption and take risks amid the worsening COVID-19 crisis.
He believes Congress could hold the special session with a skeletal work force.
“We do not need a full staff in a special session. As long as there are recorders and a limited number of people to operate recorders, I suppose that will be enough. We will work on only one issue to be submitted by the Palace,” he further said.
At the same time, he urged his colleagues in the Senate to all their suggestions and be prepared should the President decide to call for a special session.”
Senator Christopher “Bong” Go vowed to push for a special session for the legislative branch to pass measures granting a supplemental budget and giving the President and concerned agencies maximum flexibility to re-allocate and utilize funds to combat the spread of the new coronavirus.
Despite. being on session break, he said Congress must continue to find ways to respond to the needs of the people, especially at this time when decisive government action is needed the most.
“We cannot delay help to the needy. Now, more than ever, we, as elected officials, must do everything we can to be of service to the Filipino people,” he emphasized.
He assured the public that the Executive Branch, led by the President, together with all concerned agencies, is doing everything it can to resolve this issue.
“We, at the Legislative Branch, are ready to do what we can to help especially through much needed legislative action, such as appropriating necessary funds to solve the crisis,” he said, further stressing that the government must always be ready to cushion the various threats of COVID-19 to the people and to the economy,” said the former aide of Duterte.
Currently, a stimulus package plus additional funding from the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation, Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office and contingency fund sources are readily available for the government to respond to the COVID-19 situation.
However, Go admitted the legislative branch could step in and convene for the passage of a supplemental budget in order to ensure flexibility in the access of funds during this time.
“If the abovementioned sources prove insufficient, I will recommend to the President that he may call for a special session so that Congress can deliberate on the need to approve a supplemental budget,” Go said.
Go said that additional funds can be allocated so that the government can deliver more financial and food assistance to Filipinos, particularly the vulnerable sectors, daily wage earners and informal economy workers affected by the strict quarantine measures being imposed.
Aside from legislation, Go mentioned that the Congress may also help through its oversight functions, in ensuring that government programs are implemented despite the imposed enhanced quarantine and social distancing measures.
Sen. Panfilo Lacson said the senators, initiated by Sotto are in discussion, to suggest to the President to call for a special session of Congress.
The special session, he said aims to pass a supplemental budget to support some specific items primarily to respond to the COVID 19 crisis.
“The plight of the senior citizens’ monthly subsidy even for a limited time, I’m sure will be considered,” he said.
For his part, Senator Bong Go said he will recommend to President Rodrigo Duterte that a special session be called.
“I, together with my other colleagues in the Senate and the House of Representatives, recommended to the President of the Republic that a special session of both Houses of Congress be called so that the legislative branch can convene to tackle and pass appropriate measures granting a supplemental budget in order to give the President and other concerned agencies the flexibility of utilizing funds as they deem necessary to combat the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19),” Go said.
Go said Duterte has already responded to this recommendation and has called on Congress to hold the Special Session immediately.
“I have discussed the matter with Senate President Vicente Sotto III and House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano who both said that they are ready to hold the Special Session at the soonest possible time, either on Saturday or Monday next week,” Go said.
“Based on our discussion, the priority is to ensure that additional funds can be allocated for immediate healthcare needs and for much-needed financial and food assistance to Filipinos, particularly the vulnerable sectors, daily wage earners and informal economy workers affected by the strict quarantine measures being imposed,” Go said.
“Both houses of Congress have expressed their commitment to find ways to respond to the needs of the people, especially at this time when decisive government action is imperative,” Go said./ Stacy Ang