Drilon: COVID-19 crisis took backburner in 2021 budget

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    SENATE minority leader Franklin Drilon yesterday said Malacañang’s proposed P4.506 trillion national budget for 2021 does not adequately respond to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) health crisis, as he noted the lower allocation given to two agencies which are at the forefront of the government’s pandemic response strategies.

    In an interview on dzBB, Drilon questioned the government’s priorities when it recommended higher budgets for the education (DepEd), public works and highways (DPWH), interior and local government (DILG), and national defense departments (DND), compared to the proposed allocation for the Department of Health (DOH) and the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD).

    The proposed 2021 Nation Expenditures Program (NEP) sets aside P754.4 billion for the education sector (DepEd, including the State Universities and Colleges and the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority), P667.3 billion for the DPWH, P246.1 billion for the DILG, and P209.1 billion for the DND.

    On the other hand, DOH, which is the executive’s forerunner in managing the COVID-19 pandemic, got a measly P203.1 billion, of which P71 billion will go to PhilHealth for universal health care coverage; and the DSWD only P171.2 billion.

    Drilon said the 2021 proposed budget seems to have been made without considering that the COVID-19 pandemic may still exist until next year.

    He noted that even the P180 billion budget of the DOH for this year for its COVID-19 response measures, including the additional appropriations from the two Bayanihan Acts, was even reduced to only P131 billion in the 2021 NEP.

    On the other hand, Drilon said the Special Amelioration Program (SAP) intended for poor families was already excluded in the DSWD budget for next year.

    “It looks like the 2021 proposed national budget was made without considering the pandemic we are facing. This does not adequately respond to the pandemic which we are fighting. It is not responsive, not only because the social amelioration program is not included. That’s why I will insist that we realign some items in the proposal so we can fund the SAP even only in the first six months of year, because things may get better during the second half of the year once a vaccine will be already developed,” Drilon said.

    He said the DOH and DSWD budgets should be increased at least for next year.

    “Maybe at least for 2021, let us give utmost priority to the budgets of the DOH and DSWD…

    We should increase the allocation of DOH and DSWD and provide funds for SAP next year.

    This budget should be, first and foremost, be health-oriented. There is no economy to speak if we do not have healthy persons, if citizens are afraid to go out because of the lack of confidence in the ability of the government to address the pandemic,” Drilon added.

    To pour in additional funding for the two agencies, Drilon said lawmakers can realign portions of the P468 billion lump sum appropriations parked at the DPWH proposed budget, the P19 billion anti-insurgency funds, and the P9 billion intelligence funds.

    Even as Drilon noted the inadequacy of the proposed 2021 national budget, Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles on Saturday night said the COVID-19 pandemic makes it urgent for the money measure to be approved before the year ends.

    “We do not want a repeat of the delay of the budget especially at this time of a pandemic.

    The government relies on the budget especially in 2021 because the programs and activities of government,” he said during the Karlo Nograles Live program over Facebook.

    The House of Representatives is set to begin plenary deliberations on the P4.506 trillion proposed national budget for 2021 today, targeting to have it approved as early as end of next month.

    ACT-CIS party-list Rep. Eric Yap, chair of the House committee on appropriations, is expected to deliver his sponsorship speech for House Bill No. 7727 or the General Appropriations Bill (GAB) after 15 days of budget briefings in the committee level.

    “I could not thank the vice chairpersons and the members of the committee enough for their dedication and hard work to have it approved. Of course, I would also like to thank the House leadership for their undying support and to everyone who helped the committee in overcoming the first hurdle in the passage of the 2021 national budget,” Yap said.

    He said the House aims to transmit the GAB to the Senate before the 18th Congress takes its break on October 17.

    Yap said the 2021 budget is “both historic and challenging not only because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic but also because of other circumstances that this august chamber is in.”

    The lawmaker is obviously referring to the ongoing speakership fight between Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano and Marinduque Rep. Lord Allan Jay Velasco who is expected to take the helm from Cayetano next month based on their term-sharing agreement.

    Some lawmakers are also questioning the alleged inequitable distribution among congressional districts of public works budget. – With Jocelyn Montemayor and Wendell Vigilia