MANILA - Congress on Thursday ratified the Bayanihan to Recover as One Act (Bayanihan 2), which gives the government more funds and discretion to create programs and aid packages to counter the health and economic problems stemming from the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).
The bill includes a P140-billion aid package for affected sectors, and a P25.52-billion standby fund that government may spend in the next 4 months before the 2021 budget takes effect.
"The normal course of budgeting is that it is very exact with the number. What do you need? We will give you that. It's very specific but here, because we don't know the course the pandemic will take - whether we'll need more for health or more for economic assistance - we gave lumpsums," Senate Committee on Finance chair Sonny Angara told ANC's Headstart.
"That's not usually the best practice in terms of budgeting, but in times of uncertainty, it's what the executive requested so there is maximum flexibility," he said.
Just like the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act - the government's first COVID-19 relief package - the Bayanihan 2 allows the President to realign funds for COVID-19-related expenses.
The discretion to redirect funds is extend to local officials, including barangay (village) chairpersons.
"There is the power to juggle appropriations here," Angara said.
"Give the nature of the pandemic, given the uncertainty, those [powers to appropriate funds] are a little bit relaxed and there is more leeway given to the President and his executive agencies," he said.
BREAKDOWN OF FUNDS
While the President is authorized to realign funds, the P140-billion fund under the Bayanihan 2 is expected to be spent as follows:
- 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 new package also gives a P15,000-cash aid for health workers who will be diagnosed with mild or moderate COVID-19. Medical frontliners who would be infected with a severe case of the disease will receive P100,000 each, while those who will succumb to the virus will be entitled to P1 million.
"Any subsidy program shall, as far as practicable, be implemented through a social protection distribution system that embeds secure and privacy preserving data capture, verification, deduplication, payroll generation, grievance, and payout using digital technologies," the bill read.
SOURCES OF FUNDING
The funds will be sourced from unprogrammed funds and savings in the 2020 budget, government-owned and controlled corporations, and taxes from Philippine Offshore Gaming Operations (POGOs).
A 5 percent tax will be imposed "on the gross bets" placed on online casinos.
The income tax, value-added tax, and other taxes charged from non-gaming operations of POGO operators, agents, service providers and support providers, will also be a source of funding for the Bayanihan 2.
VACCINE TRIAL WAIVER
The proposed bill waives the final phase of vaccine trials "to expedite the procurement" of the COVID-19 vaccines and medication.
But the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will still be required to adhere to "minimum standards for the distribution of the said medication and vaccine," according to the Bayanihan 2.
"Ibig sabihin, kung sa certification ng WHO (World Health Organization) ay ang isang vaccine ay puwede nang gamitin kahit hindi po dumaan sa Phase 4, payag na po, may authority na bilhin," said Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon, who was part of the Senate contigent to the bicameral conference committee.
(The Phase 4 was waived for procurement. This means that if the WHO certification says that a vaccine can be used, it doesn’t need to undergo Phase 4 anymore and there is authority to buy it.)
EASE OF DOING BUSINESS
The Bayanihan 2 also bolsters the Ease of Doing Business Act by mandating all government agencies to finish all license applications and other transactions within 7 days, Angara said.
"2020 is all about survival na lang. Forget about making money," he said.
The provision was crafted especially for telecommunication companies who are being pushed to speed up the construction of cell sites to improve the internet connectivity in the country as most sectors were forced to shift to digital platforms due to the global pandemic.
Under the Bayanihan 2, multiple requirements for the construction of cell sites are suspended "except for the building permit... and the height clearance permit."
"No national or local permit or clearance shall be required in the construction, installation, repair, operation and maintenance of telecommunications and internet infrastructure by independent tower
companies," according to the bill.
"No court, except the Supreme Court, shall issue any temporary restraining order, preliminary injunction or preliminary mandatory injunction against the construction of telecommunications infrastructure, including cell sites and cell towers," it said.
Banks, real estate developers, insurance companies and other financial institutions are required to "to implement a one-time 60-day grace period to be granted for the payment of all existing, current and outstanding loans" made until December 31, 2020.
"All loans may be settled on staggered basis without interest on interests, penalties and other charges until December 31, 2020 or as may be agreed upon by the parties," the bill read.
The provision does "not apply to interbank loan and bank borrowings."
The Bayanihan 2 has also exempted several items and benefits from taxation to ease the burden on Filipinos during the economic recession.
Retirement benefits received between June 5 and December 31, 2020 "shall be excluded from gross income and shall be exempt from taxation," according to the bill.
The bill also repeals the a provision in the National Internal Revenue Code of 1997 which taxes the "Sale, Barter or Exchange of Shares of Stock Listed and Traded through Initial Public Offering."
The P25.5-billion standby fund in the bill "will not be immediately available," and was included in the proposed policy to give government more leeway to respond to COVID-19 developments until the end of the year, Angara said.
The Bayanihan 2 measure will expire on December 31, 2020.