MANILA (2nd UPDATE) — President Rodrigo Duterte is asking lawmakers to fast-track the extension of the validity of two spending laws to ensure that delayed COVID-19 response projects would still be rolled out.
Duterte certified as urgent bills to extend the 2020 budget until Dec. 31, 2021, and the Bayanihan to Recover as One Act or Bayanihan 2, which allows the President to realign funds to address the impact of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
The extension of the validity of the two laws will "ensure the continuous implementation of various government programs, projects, and activities for addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, and altering economic recovery," Duterte said in a Dec. 14 letter to House Speaker Lord Allan Jay Velasco.
"This is to confirm that President Rodrigo Roa Duterte has certified as urgent the extension of the 2020 General Appropriations Act (GAA) and Bayanihan to Recover as One Act (Bayanihan 2)," Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque said in a separate statement.
Bills certified as urgent are exempt from a rule requiring lawmakers to study the measure for at least 3 days before voting on it.
Voting 221-6-0, the House of Representatives on Monday approved on final reading House Bill 6656 which gives the Duterte administration one more year to spend this year's national budget.
The approval paves the way for the Senate to act on the measure.
SOME SOLONS FEAR FUND ABUSE
If the budget is extended until Dec. 31, 2021, the funds can be used until 3 months before the presidential elections, said Bayan Muna Party-list Rep. Ferdinand Gaite.
"We fear that the timing of the release of funds may be used or exploited by those who wish to top up their campaign kitties come the 2022 elections," he said in a statement.
Gabriela Party-list Rep. Arlene Brosas meanwhile said billions of pesos in unused funds are pending in several agencies, like the stagnant P83 billion in the social welfare department.
"Bakit tila nakasanayan nang dugtungan ang validity ng general appropriations, lalo na’t humaharap tayo sa pandemya, krisis at epekto ng kalamidad?" she said.
(Why has it been a practice to extend the validity of the general appropriations, especially now that we are facing a pandemic, crisis and the effect of calamity?)
"Incompetence at inefficiency ba ang problema? O sinasadyang magsubi ng bilyun-bilyon para todo buhos ang pondo sa susunod na taon – na bisperas ng eleksyong 2022?” the lawmaker added.
(Are incompetence and inefficiency the problem? Or are billions being set aside so that funds flow freely next year, ahead of the 2022 elections?)
WHY THE NEED FOR EXTENSION?
The P4.1-trillion 2020 budget "has a lot of projects that were delayed because of the lockdown, of quarantine, so additional time is needed," Senate Committee on Finance chair Sen. Sonny Angara earlier said.
The Bayanihan 2, which expires on Dec. 19, includes P8 billion for procuring vaccines against the novel coronavirus. If the law is not extended, this fund will be reverted to the National Treasury, he said.
Bayanihan 2 allocates a total of P140 billion to help sectors affected by the health crisis, and earmarks P25 billion in standby funds should the government need more money to finance COVID-19-related projects.
Annual national budgets expire at the end of every year, while emergency measures - like the Bayanihan 2 - would lose its validity once Congress adjourns session.
Once these spending laws expire, funds that were unspent have to be reverted to the National Treasury, and Congress would have to craft another law to authorize the executive branch to tap these funds for specific projects.
The budget heads of the Senate and the House of Representatives confirmed on Dec. 9 that Congress is planning to extend the validity of the two laws even as the two chambers ratified on the same day the proposed P4.5-trillion 2021 national budget.
-- With reports from Katrina Domingo and RG Cruz, ABS-CBN News