Senate seeks probe on slow COVID aid release

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    LAWMAKERS have their eyes trained on the administration’s disbursement of the P140 billion COVID-19 stimulus fund appropriated under the Bayanihan to Recover as One Act, or Bayanihan 2, to finance government’s recovery programs.

    Following moves from administration allies in the House of Representatives, Sen. Francis Pangilinan yesterday filed Senate Resolution 647 initiating a Senate inquiry into the slow disbursement and utilization of the Bayanihan 2 funds.

    Pangilinan said his resolution is based on a report from the Office of the President submitted to the Senate early last month which showed that only P103.24 billion of the P140 billion programmed Bayanihan 2 funds have been released.

    Pangilinan specifically pointed out the delays in the release of the salaries of contact tracers, hazard pay and special allowances of health workers, cash subsidies to jeepney drivers, P83 billion in Department of Social Welfare and Development funds, and the underspending of the Departments of Transportation, Public Works and Highways, and Agriculture.

    “These delays and underspending are unacceptable given that Bayanihan 2 was signed into law September 11, 2020… Alam natin na ito ang susi sa pagbangon ng ating ekonomiya.

    Pero kung from disbursement at utilization sobrang bagal, baka patay na ang kabayo, ika nga (We all know that this is the key to economic recovery. But the disbursement to utilization is very slow… it may already be too late for all of us when the funds are used),” Pangilinan said.

    A similar measure was filed in the House of Representatives on Tuesday which asked the House committee on public accounts to investigate why almost 30 percent of the Bayanihan 2 has been not been disbursed until now, a year after the COVID-19 pandemic hit the country.

    House Resolution (HR) No. 1558, or “A resolution urging the committee on public accounts to conduct an investigation, in aid of legislation, on the release and utilization of appropriations authorized under Republic Act No. 11494, otherwise known as the Bayanihan to Recover as One (Act),” was filed by 37 congressmen, including five deputy speakers.

    Reacting to Pangilinan’s call, presidential spokesman Harry Roque said all of the P140 billion Bayanihan 2 fund have already been released by the Department of Budget and Management DBM to the different agencies involved in the implementation of measures to address the pandemic and to restart the economy.

    Budget Secretary Wendel Avisado said only close to P137 billion of the P140 billion appropriations have been distributed to the different agencies.

    What has been “100 percent” released, according to Avisado. is the P25.5 billion standby funds under the Bayanihan 2 law.

    “There is still P3.1 billion left from the P140 billion while the P25.5 billion standby funds have all been released,” Avisado said adding that details as to where the funding went are available in their website.

    Lawmakers passed in March last year the Bayanihan 1 which served as the first stimulus law. It expired six months later, which prompted Congress to pass Bayanihan 2 last September.

    The Bayanihan 2 was supposed to expire last December but Congress extended its validity up to June so government can have ample time to disburse the funds allocated under it.

    A total of P386.1 billion was released under Bayanihan 1, while Bayanihan 2 had an appropriation of P165.5 billion (P140 billion programmed funds, and P25.5 billion unprogrammed funds). Both laws were funded by cutting non-implementable government programs and projects or by taking out new loans.

    Sen. Grace Poe said she wanted to know where the government will get the budget to pour into the proposed Bayanihan 3 Act considering that a portion of the Bayanihan 2 budget are already unprogrammed funds.

    “I would like to know where we will be able to source the funding for that (Bayanihan 3) because even Bayanihan 2, a portion of the appropriation is under unprogrammed funds.

    How are we going to source it, where are we going to spend it? We have to know the real score so that we will not make empty promises to the people,” Poe said.

    Before passing another stimulus law, Poe said Bayanihan 2 funds must first be accounted for so the public will know how the funds are being used.

    “Let us consider that Bayanihan 2 was extended, therefore, we still need to get a proper accounting of what was spent in Bayanihan 2 – if there are any savings or deficit,” Poe said.

    “Another important question that should be raised is where are we exactly going to source the funding for this (unprogrammed funds for Bayanihan 2)?” she said, adding the country is saddled with P10 trillion debt in 2020 and is programmed to borrow P3 trillion more this year,” she added.

    Senate president pro tempore Ralph Recto, who is the author of the Senate version of the Bayanihan 3 bill, said the “supply squeeze and price hikes” of food should prompt the immediate passage of Bayanihan 3.

    “If hunger is a great motivator, then it should push the government to package a third round of aid centered on helping families of having a hard time putting food on the table,” Recto said.

    Recto said among the programs worth considering under Bayanihan 3 are food-for-work employment programs in labor-intensive government projects from public works, repair of farm infrastructure, preparation and distribution of modules, and health.

    “All indicators point to reloading the Bayanihan now. Tourist receipts from a sector which accounts for 1/10th of the economy, plummeted to P82.2 billion last year from P482.1 billion in 2019,” Recto said.

    He said that while funds for Bayanihan 2 and the 2021 national budget are still being spent, it is just right to prepare the replacement as there is certainty that they will be spent.

    “If the enemy is mutating, so must our response be,” he added. – With Jocelyn Montemayor