IT is perplexing and embarrassing that while the onslaught of the Covid-19 pandemic is overwhelmingly disastrous to the Filipinos’ health and the country’s economy, the Duterte administration’s response is by inadequate phases and anemic installments.
Other Asean countries have outpaced the Philippines in the immediacy and amount appropriated, so much so that the Philippines is projected to be the last to recover in late 2022 from the pandemic-induced recession among Asia-Pacific countries.
The Duterte administration’s initial response was Republic Act No. 11469 or the “Bayanihan to Heal as One Act” (Bayanihan 1). It had no specific appropriations but empowered the President to realign expenditure items in the 2020 and 2019 General Appropriations Acts (GAAs) for Covid-19 response. The total fund recouped was grossly inadequate.
Then came R.A. No. 11494 or “Bayanihan to Recover as One Act” (Bayanihan 2) which appropriated, upon the tightfisted bidding of Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez, the inadequate amount of P165.5 billion, P25.5 billion of which was a standby fund with no funding support. It is an unmitigated shame that a measly allocation could not be expeditiously utilized, so much so that a second extension of Bayanihan 2’s effectivity is being mulled.
The third response is contained in the 2021 GAA with a total of only P14.2 billion programmed appropriations in the Department of Health for varied Covid-19 responses. Its biggest outlay for the pandemic is embedded in the unprogrammed funds in the amount of P70 billion, the release of which is subject to contingent events.
Due to paucity of funding support to effectively address the pandemic, the House of Representatives passed on third and final reading Bayanihan 3 under House Bill No. 9411 which is cited as “Bayanihan to Arise as One Act” with an appropriation of P401 billion. However, Bayanihan 3 is not endorsed by President Rodrigo Duterte’s economic managers, and the National Treasurer did not issue a certification of fund availability.
Although Bayanihan 3 is urgently necessary to help buttress the country’s response to the pandemic, I abstained from voting for the following reasons:
- It suffers a constitutional infirmity for failure to comply with Sec. 25(4) of Art. VI of the Constitution which provides that “A special appropriations bill … shall be supported by funds actually available as certified by the National Treasurer, or to be raised by a corresponding revenue proposal therein.”; and
- There are certain questionable provisions which were not clarified because the period of interpellation was limited to one session only. An example is the creation of an elite class of beneficiaries consisting of the military and uniformed personnel who are proposed to receive P54.6 billion for retirement and other benefits. This is a patent rider with an outlay bigger than the combined appropriations for assistance to displaced/disadvantaged workers (P25 billion), medical assistance to indigents (P9 billion), local government support fund (P3 billion), support to basic and higher education (P4.5 billion), national nutrition (P6.0 billion), and assistance to cooperatives (P2 billion). Moreover, millions of pesos are already appropriated in the 2020 and 2021 GAAs under the pension and gratuity fund for the pension and other benefits of military and uniformed personnel.
The appropriation power of the House of Representatives is subject to a number of limitations, one of which, as cited above, is the mandatory requirement that the enactment of a special or supplemental appropriations measure needs the prior certification of the National Treasurer on the availability of funds or funding support from a corresponding revenue measure.
Since appropriation entails the allocation of funds, it stands to reason that funds must be available or a corresponding revenue measure be proposed to ensure the implementation of the appropriation law. Absence of available funds or a source of revenue funding makes the supplemental or special appropriation measure illusory, and a mockery to intended beneficiaries. Even the annual General Appropriations Bill must have a funding source as enumerated in the Budget of Expenditure and Sources of Financing (BESF).
Upon verification from National Treasurer Rosalia de Leon, she said that there has been no formal request from the House of Representatives for the issuance of a certificate of availability of funds for Bayanihan 3. She added, however, that during discussions with the proponents of Bayanihan 3, she verbally informed them that presently there are no funds available.
Neither does Bayanihan 3 propose a corresponding revenue measure. The fiscal measures like utilization of programmed and unprogrammed funds in the 2021 GAA; savings pooled under Bayanihan 1 and 2; excess revenue collections; unutilized or unreleased balances in Special Purpose Funds; cash, funds and investments held by the GOCCs; and unused appropriations for debt service do not qualify as the corresponding revenue measure required by the Constitution. Moreover, aside from the fact that these funds are already budgeted, there is no certitude that the monies expected from these fiscal measures will be realized.
Is the absence of a certification of fund availability an admission that the country is cash-strapped? Is it really true that the country is destitute of funds? What happened to the total of $15.49 billion from foreign loans and grants principally for Covid-19 response received by the government which is approximately P743.52 billion? Has the P3.160 trillion generated by the Bureau of Treasury in its domestic financing activities from January 2020 to March 2021 been completely spent for budgetary support?
Or is the utilization of available funds being reserved by the Duterte administration for purposes other than the Covid-19 response considering the proximity of the 2022 elections? Is the Duterte administration forfeiting a sustained and more adequate response to the on-going pandemic? Is President Duterte abandoning Filipinos and the economy to the cruel and catastrophic clutches of the contagion?