Special session pushed for COVID assistance package

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    with Wendell Vigilia

    SENATE President Vicente Sotto III on Thursday pushed for the holding of a special session of Congress to address mounting financial concerns consequent to the Luzon-wide enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) aimed at ending the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19).

    Sotto said he has discussed his proposal with Finance Secretary Carlos 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, adding Congress can hold the special session with a skeletal work force.

    He said while he agrees that home quarantine and social distancing is a must at this time, government should make an exemption and take risks amid the worsening COVID-19 crisis.

    “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 added.

    Sotto said most senators concur with his suggestion.

    “Let us (senators) pool all our suggestions and be prepared should the President decide to call for a special session… Money is food. Food is security. Security is peace and order,” he said.

    Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano backed Senate President Vicente Sotto III’s call for a special session to tackle and pass measures granting a supplemental budget for the government to combat the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19).

    Cayetano said Congress is ready if the President decides to call for an emergency session “to come up with a feasible and pragmatic economic package.”

    Cayetano said Congress can adapt special rules “like online voting if necessary, and practice social distancing measures to accommodate all our members, including those who are currently in self-quarantine.”

    Aside from passing a supplemental budget, Cayetano also wants to prioritize the passage of a measure that will grant more flexibility in the utilization of government funds in the implementation of vital programs that will allow the government to provide immediate support to the severely affected sectors, and the most vulnerable population.

    The House is also proposing a measure that will finance a comprehensive economic stimulus package that will mitigate the effects of COVID-19 specifically on the tourism and informal sector as well as to the micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs).

    “We have started discussions with our colleagues in Congress and the Executive on how to operationalize short and medium-term economic programs and reduce bureaucratic procedures to help those who are going to be adversely affected by COVID-19.

    Sen. Christopher Go said the special session will give lawmakers the chance to approve a supplemental budget to boost funds being used to stave the spread of the coronavirus. Go also said the supplemental budget can give the President and concerned agencies maximum flexibility to reallocate and utilize funds needed to contain the virus.

    Go said a stimulus package plus additional funding from the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp., Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office, and other sources are currently available for the government to respond to the health crisis.

    “If the above-mentioned 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.

    SUBSIDY
    Sotto proposed that a P300 per family per day financial aid be given to households severely affected by the suspension of work and mass transportation.

    He said that while a P500 subsidy per day per family would be ideal, a P300 per family per day assistance will be enough considering the financial constraint the additional funding will cost the national treasury.

    The proposed P300 a day per family for 30 days in the National Capital Region would already amount to P27 billion.

    Sotto said the subsidy scheme can also be applied in other regions that are threatened with limited food supply due to the “no work, no pay” policy enforced by some companies.

    Sotto said deputy speaker Loren Legarda, former Senate accounts committee chairwoman, has informed him that there is a P36-billion unconditional cash transfer in the 2020 General Appropriations Act, which has not yet been utilized.

    “If the DBM cannot use that for one reason or another, we can pass a law saying he should so they can distribute the cash nationwide,” he said.

    Legarda said figures from the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) actually show a total of P56.4 billion that government can release to the poor “who need it most during this COVID-19 crisis.”

    Legarda said the amount, which is from the unused unconditional cash transfer (UCT) budgets from fiscal year 2018 to 2020, can be given to the poor.

    “So, a total of P56.4 billion is the available UCT for release to the poor. This is already legislated, appropriated and partly unused while the poor are in need so please use it for those who don’t have income and need food,” she said on Twitter.

    Legarda asked the Department of Budget and Management and the Department of Social Welfare and Development to distribute the cash to the poor within the next few days.Aside from passing a supplemental budget, Cayetano also wants to prioritize the passage of a measure that will grant more flexibility in the use of government funds in the implementation of programs that will allow the government to provide immediate support to the severely affected sectors, and the most vulnerable population.

    EARLY RELEASE OF BENEFITS
    Anakalusugan party-list Rep. Michael Defensor, chair of the House committee on public accounts, urged the DBM to advance the release of the midyear bonus of the 1.6 million personnel of the bureaucracy.

    “We should walk the talk. If the government is appealing to private employers to consider advancing the 13th-month salary of their employees to tide them over the enhanced community quarantine, the public sector should do the same. In fact, we should take the lead,” he said.

    Defensor said the government would have moral persuasion over private employers if the DBM releases the state workers’ midyear bonus equivalent to one-month salary ahead of the time it is to be paid.

    Defensor added that under National Budget Circular No. 579 issued by DBM Secretary Wendel Avisado last January 24, the midyear bonus in the bureaucracy is “to be given not earlier than May 15 of every year.”

    “If President Duterte or the DBM authorizes its payment on March 31, we are advancing it only by one-month-and-a-half. The government loses nothing, but our employees in the bureaucracy will have more money during this emergency,” he said.

    Quezon City Rep. Precious Castelo proposed a one-month waiver of payments that people owe government institutions and private establishments.

    “Since President Duterte has placed the country under a state of calamity for six months, I am proposing a national payment holiday for 30 days to help our people through the enhanced community quarantine. Desperate times call for desperate measures,” she said.

    She said all payments to government agencies like the Social Security System, Government Service Insurance System, Pag-ibig Fund, and PhilHealth should be scrapped during the quarantine period.

    The payments should include loan amortizations and premium contributions, said the Quezon City lawmaker.

    “Those state institutions can afford to forego such remittances because they have hundreds of billions in funds,” Castelo said, additionally calling for a waiver on rentals for apartments and other dwelling units, and for commercial space in private establishments like malls.

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