Special session: Unused 2019 funds eyed for COVID-19 emergency

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    – With Wendell Vigilia and Jocelyn Montemayor

    CONGRESS is set to hold a special session on Monday morning to grant President Duterte the authority to tap and realign the unused portion of the 2019 General Appropriations Act (GAA) to cushion the impact of the COVID-19 on daily wage earners.

    The special session will start at 10 a.m. in the respective chambers of the Senate and the House of Representatives. The decision to call for a special session was reached during a meeting Saturday among Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea, Senate President Vicente Sotto III, Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano, Budget Secretary Wendel Avisado, and several lawmakers in Malacañang.

    In a letter addressed to Sotto dated March 21, which was copy-furnished to Cayetano, Malacañang cited Section 15, Article VI of the Constitution and urged lawmakers to “authorize the President to exercise powers necessary to carry out urgent measures to meet the current national emergency relating to the COVID-19.”

    A copy of a supposed draft bill attached to the letter was circulated among members of the media on Sunday.

    The last line of Section 3 of the purported bill stated: “By reason thereof, and in order to implement the aforementioned policy, it is imperative to grant him (Duterte) emergency powers subject to such limitations as hereinafter provided.”

    Among the powers sought as stated in the alleged draft was to allow the President to “temporarily take over or direct the operation of any privately-owned public utility or business affected with public interest to be used in addressing the needs of the public during COVID-19 emergency as determined by the President…”

    Sotto said the grant of emergency powers to Duterte is not the agenda of the special session. He said Congress will focus on coming up with a measure that will allow the distribution of cash assistance to 16.5 million families affected by the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) declared by Duterte on Monday last week.

    “Read the title (of the proposed bill). Nothing there says emergency powers. Yes, absolutely wrong [to say that President Duterte is asking for emergency powers] because that [to give cash assistance] was precisely my point in the meeting yesterday [Saturday], that this is not an emergency powers bill.  We agreed that it is not,” Sotto said.

    Sotto said granting emergency power to the President was not even discussed during the Saturday meeting

    He said the draft of the proposed bill which circulated on Sunday is “a draft (that) I did not agree on.”

    He said the “takeover” provision in the draft proposed bill, which he said was an add-on by some lawyers in the Palace, will not be included in the Senate committee report.

    Chief Presidential Legal Counsel and concurrent presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo, when asked about the alleged provision of the proposed bill, said what he saw in the proclamation order was “powers necessary to carry out urgent measures to implement the national emergency,” “not emergency powers.”

    Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles said the issue will be debated by Congress during the special session.

    Albay Rep. Joey Salceda, chair of the House committee on ways and means, said he would author a bill granting President Duterte emergency powers to contain the spread of the virus and expand the government’s capacity to respond faster and more effectively to the public health emergency.

    He particularly called for provisions to exempt the purchase of necessary medical supplies and other essential goods from the procurement law, as well as support for frontliners.

    “Subsistence allowances will also be given to poor families affected by the enhanced quarantine through these powers. I already proposed that a few days ago, so I am thankful that the government is adopting the approach.” Salceda said.

    UNUSED 2019 FUNDS

    Sotto said Malacañang can tap unused portions of the 2019 budget to augment government’s funding for its COVID-19 emergency response measures.

    “There is a section there that will allow President Duterte to use the unused funds in the 2019 national budget which are now in the National Treasury, big amounts will come from government-owned and controlled corporations which will be sufficient enough.  But he (Duterte) can also realign funds from the 2020 budget, as needed,” Sotto said.

    House majority leader Martin Romualdez said the House and the Senate will convene separately to grant President Duterte the authority “to specifically realign government funds for food, allowances to help the affected families, boost the medical requirements of the people and protection of those who are in the frontline especially our doctors, nurses and all medical personnel.”

    “We will provide enough logistics to help President Duterte ensure that millions of Filipinos now under enhanced community quarantine are fed and afforded with other supplies needed in these difficult times,” he said in a statement.

    Salceda said government is looking at giving out an P8,000 assistance, which he described dubbed as “pantawid quarantine” program, for those affected by work stoppages due to the ECQ.

    Salceda, during the “Laging Handa” public forum, said among those expected to benefit from the program are vendors, tricycle drivers, jeepney drivers, and farmers who could not work. He said another measure being considered by government is the provision of nutrition supplements for senior citizens.

    Romualdez said the House leadership intends to wrap up the deliberation and approve the measures proposed by the executive within the day.

    “Time is of the essence. We need to act swiftly. The survival of our families and of the nation is at stake,” he said.

    It was not clear yet if the House will still pass the P1.6-billion supplemental budget that the committee on appropriations approved before the congressional recess since Congress is already eyeing a P275-billion realignment under this year’s national budget to help the executive in the fight against COVID-19.

    Sen. Panfilo Lacson, Senate accounts committee chairman, said in a radio interview that initial information reaching him showed there are P989 billion unused funds as of the third quarter of last year in the 2019 GAA.

    He said Duterte can make realignments in the 2019 GAA once Congress approves it after the special session since the lifespan of the 2019 national budget was extended by lawmakers until December this year.

    “Assuming that half of that (P989 billion) is still unused as of the fourth quarter of 2019, the President can make realignments in that amount because we passed a law which extended the lifespan [validity] of the budget up to December 31, 2020,” Lacson said.

    Sotto, on the other hand, said they are eyeing at least P200 billion to be realigned from the 2019 budget to give 30 percent equivalent of the minimum daily wage of some 16.5 million daily wage earners who were affected by the enhanced community quarantine.

    Sotto said the P200 billion is estimated to cover the needs of the affected daily wage earners for two months. He, however, said  there is no word yet from the Palace if the ECQ would last up to two months.

    Sotto said senators will first declare the existence of a national emergency and come up with a unified policy before they go into the details of the agenda for the special session.

    VIRTUAL SESSION

    Sotto said that while majority of the senators have committed to be physically present at the Senate for the special session, he will allow those who are on self-quarantine to participate in the proceedings via electronic conferencing.

    In a letter to House members, Secretary General Joel Montales said that after consultations and deliberation, and with the permission of Cayetano and majority leader Benny Abante, “we’ve reached the painful decision to limit to 20 the number of members who would be physically present at the special session on Monday, March 23, at 10 a.m.”

    “We endeavored to ensure that all the major parties, including party-lists, Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao, and the minority block are represented,” he said.

    Montales said the number of people in the plenary will not be allowed to reach more than 50.

    Two House employees have died of COVID-19 – a member of the printing service and a chief-of-staff of a female lawmaker. A party-list lawmaker has also reportedly tested positive for the virus.

    Montales said there will be options for members to log in their attendance, cast their vote, and even speak during the special session.

    He said lawmakers will be invited to join a Viber group chat which will be used to cast votes while a videoconferencing application called Zoom Cloud Meetings will be used to accommodate all members.

    “Debates, manifestations, etc. may be done by video call through This application. To use this, you have to download this application to your device and sign up,” the secretary general told congressmen.

    Deputy Speaker Luis Raymund Villafuerte, who was among those who attended Saturday’s meeting, said lawmakers will adjust, keeping in mind protocols set by the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF).

    “Imagine 200 congressmen attending. They will be bringing with them a staff, drivers and security etc. plus staff of the House of Representatives. There will easily be at least over a thousand people exposed and risking contamination in the house,” he said.

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