MANILA (UPDATED) - The Department of Budget and Management (DBM) has yet to release some P34 billion allocated for the tourism and agriculture sectors under the Bayanihan to Recover as One Act about 2 months before the COVID-19 aid fund expires, several senators said Monday.
Under the law that will expire on December 19, P24 billion is allotted to loans for farmers, while some P10 billion is earmarked for the "tourism industry assistance programs," aid for displaced workers, and "training and subsidies for tourist guides" who were displaced due to the global pandemic.
“Of the P10 billion, not a single peso has been released?” Senate Minority Leader Frankin Drilon asked Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat during a budget hearing.
“Wala pa ho, kasi from the DBM ang release,” Puyat replied.
(There's nothing yet, since the release will be from the DBM)
“Just to make it clear, you have submitted work plans, and financial plans, whatever it’s called, to the implementing agency and to the DBM for the release, for you to have access to this fund?” Drilon asked.
“Yes, Mr. Chair,” Puyat responded.
"Sayang 'yung mga nilagay natin sa Bayanihan 2 kung hindi naman ire-release 'yung mga pondo," Senate Committee on Tourism chair Nancy Binay said.
(What we provided in Bayanihan 2 will be a waste if the funds are not released.)
Of the P10-billion tourism bailout facility, P6 billion is allocated for soft loans for tourism MSMEs affected by the pandemic, P3 billion is for cash-for-work programs to help displaced tourism workers, and P1 billion is allotted for tourism road infrastructures. The DOT said, the funding will benefit around 5,000 tourism MSMEs.
While the executive branch is authorized to disburse P140 billion to help sectors that were forced to suspend operations or downsize due to COVID-19, "there are no funds to release," Drilon said.
"That is the painful truth. There is nothing to release. That is what we have to live with," he said.
"There is a lot of lump sum, and yet worthy undertakings like the tourism industry does not get it," he said.
Sen. Christopher "Bong" Go said he would put in his "best effort" to urge economic managers to increase the Department of Tourism's budget as the job and revenue-generating sector was among those heavily-hit after the Philippines was placed on a lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19.
The Bayanihan 2 - the Philippines' second COVID-19 relief package - was signed into law in September.
The spending bill authorizes the executive branch to spend some P140 billion for the following programs:
- Funding for government financial institutions - P39.47 billion
- Loans for farmers - P24 billion
- Health-related response - P13.5 billion
- Cash for work and involuntary separation pay - P13 billion
- Transportation programs - P9.5 billion
- Social welfare programs - P6 billion
- Hiring of contact tracers - P5 billion
- Construction of temporary isolation facilities - P4.5 billion
- Education sector's transition to new normal - P4 billion
- Maintenance of isolation facilities (hotel, food, transportation bills) - P4.5 billion
- Tourism industry assistance and programs - P4 billion
- Assistance for State Universities and Colleges - P3 billion
- Procurement of personal protective equipment - P3 billion
- Payment for local government loans - P2 billion
- Local Government Support Fund - P1.5 billion
- TESDA scholarship - P1 billion
- Foreign Affairs assistance to nationals fund - P820 million
- Allowances for qualified students - P600 million
- Allowances for displaced teachers, non-teaching personnel - P300 million
- Allowances for national athletes and coaches - P180 million
- Training and subsidies for tourist guides - P100 million
- UP computational research laboratory - P15 million
- Health Technology Assessment Council research fund - P10 million
- Professional Regulation Commission computer-based licensure exam: P2.5 million
- Standby fund - P25.52 billion
The measure will expire on December 19, when Congress goes on a month-long break for the Christmas and New Year holidays.
Last week, President Rodrigo Duterte said that funds under the 2 Bayanihan Acts were being "spent wisely."
"Ito namang pera ng Bayanihan Act, I assure you, that it was spent wisely, it was spent according to rules," the President said.
(The money allocated by the Bayanihan Act, I assure you, that it was spent wisely, it was spent according to rules.)
"Wala hong ano diyan, sindikato. Wala hong, sabihin mo na may nakawan," he said.
(There is no syndicate there. There is no corruption.)
The executive department has yet to release an update on how much of the P140 billion fund has been released to agencies, and how much has been utilized.
TRAVEL TAX COLLECTION DROPPED TO P870M IN 2020
As of August 30, the country’s total travel tax collection this year dropped to P870 million from P6.8 billion in 2019, amid the travel restrictions imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Tourism Infrastructure and Enterprise Zone Authority.
“The drop in terms of collection is quite big, roughly about 83 percent,” TIEZA Chief Operating Officer Pocholo Paragas told the Senate.
Of the total tax collections, around half goes to TIEZA for tourism infrastructure projects.
“The infrastructure program for next year is almost kaput because we have no travel tax,” Drilon observed.
Puyat, meanwhile, said the agency expects a decline in tourist arrivals next year, still due to the pandemic.
“Next year, I think it (target) was supposed to be 10 million (tourist arrivals), but we’ve already thrown that out. We will definitely not reach the numbers,” she told senators.
Asked about the options available for displaced tourism workers, Puyat said the DOT continues to provide skills training and BPO companies got in touch with the agency looking for workers.
“They’re looking for 10,000, at least that’s one BPO, employees a month, and they will be employed for 6 months. ‘Yung iba nag-pivot muna there,” she said.
SENATORS SUPPORT AUGMENTING DOT BUDGET
Some senators called for an increase in DOT’s proposed 2021 budget, as they note of the tourism sector’s contribution to the country’s economy and job generation. The agency had requested for a P4.9-billion budget for next year, but the DBM approved only P3.5 billion, P89 million less than DOT’s budget last year.
“I really am in favor of supporting the budget of the Department of Tourism to the levels they requested originally. Because these are funds that can provide immediate employment,” Drilon said.
“As long as we can survive this pandemic, by the middle of next year, we should be able to revive domestic tourism between the first six months. Unless there is sufficient support, we’ll have problems,” he added.
“Tourism is an economic stimulus,” Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri also stressed.
In 2019, the tourism sector contributed over 12.7 percent to the country’s overall gross domestic product.
“In terms of our GDP, our tourism industry has contributed it’s share, and yet, instead of rewarding and supporting the Departmet of Tourism, our national budget keeps on decreasing its support for the tourism industry, I do not understand this,” Drilon said.
“It’s called lip service,” Sen. Richard Gordon replied.
“Sometimes, we miss the forest for the trees. We cut here, we cut there, not knowing we’re cutting our own necks,” he noted.
Binay urged his colleagues to also augment the funding for regional DOT offices, as the agency shifted its focus to domestic tourism amid the pandemic.
“During the period of amendment, let us bring back the budget for the regional offices. But maybe this time, let’s not get it from the Office of the Secretary, but try to source it from another budget,” she said.
“I am with you on that,” Gordon replied.
He, however, called out the DOT for its low utilization of budget this year.
“I have an observation that came from COA. It shows that you are not spending the money that has been given to you… I think you have only spent 57 percent of your allotment on the budget,” Gordon said.
Puyat said the pandemic affected the implementation of the agency’s projects, but the DOT is optimistic that they will be able to utilize 90 percent of the budget by December.
“A lot of our budget was for trade fairs abroad. It had to be downsized because of COVID… We already have our catch up plans for the different departments and attached agencies,” she explained.