By Tracy Cabrera
AMIDST the severe effect of the coronavirus global pandemic that has wrought havoc on the country’s economy and necessitated the imposition of safety protocols to contain the spread of Covid-19, Senate president pro tempore Ralph Recto expressed alarm over the ‘microscopic’ budget allotted for the health infrastructure in the proposed P4.5-trillion 2021 national budget.
Recto cited how the health sector would be getting only a one percent share of the total spending of the government amid the prevailing coronavirus pandemic, describing the allotment as the “biggest factory defect” by the Duterte administration.
“In the midst of the pandemic, when the deficiencies of hospitals and the health system have been exposed, how can this be overlooked by all the President’s men?” the opposition senator said in reference to the meager budget earmarked for the government’s health programs.
Recto expressed dismay that in the proposed PhP1.1-trillion spending for capital outlay next year, only PhP11.4 billion is being set aside for health infrastructure in the 2021 general appropriations bill.
He lamented an admission by colleague Senator Sonny Angara, who chairs the Senate finance committee, which the country’s spending for new health facilities was flat whilst other countries affected by the global health crisis were doubling amounts in such investments for the incoming year in response to the ongoing problems of the pandemic.
“How many ICU (intensive care unit) beds are we adding [in 2021]? How many additional ventilators? It seems there’s none,” Recto pointed out.
“This is counterintuitive. Bad science meets bad politics. Why put a crisis to waste?” he added.
Last Tuesday, November 17, the Senate trimmed PhP35 billion from the proposed 2021 budget of the Department of Transportation (DoTr), intending to divert the money to pandemic and calamity response.
But even with the cut, the PhP109.88-billion outlay for the DoTr headed by Secretary Arthur Tugade was still at a “record high,” Senator Grace Poe-Llamanzares noted. Poe-Llamanzares heads the Senate committee on public services and is the budget sponsor. In 2020, the department received a PhP100.6-billion budget.
“We are in a pandemic and there are important items that the government must spend on,” Poe stressed.
Recto also disclosed that the proposed 2021 budget did not include funds for a sustained contact tracing for Covid-19.
“Are we abandoning our duty to do contact tracing? Are we changing strategy?” he asked.
In response, Angara said the national government was pursuing its duty of contact tracing, but it was only ‘scaling down’ the program, “given that there is no continuity for the 50,000 trained contact tracers.”
The administration senator conceded that the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) should estimate how many local governments can absorb the contact tracers “to ensure continuity of the program.”
But Recto countered that local government units could not be expected to continue the contact-tracing program as their revenues “would be less due to the effects of the pandemic.”
The Senate approved a PhP109.88-billion outlay for the DoTr but deferred action on the PhP91-million budget of the controversy-plagued Land Transportation Office (LTO), one of the department’s agencies said to be riddled with corruption.
The slice of the original PhP145.36-billion DoTr budget proposed by the executive was bigger than the PhP20-billion cut in the version of the House of Representatives, Poe revealed.
“We trimmed the fat and examined the DoTr’s ability to use it,” she said.
Recto said the House of Representatives and the Senate made the right call in cutting the DoTr’s outlay. He earlier noted the department’s poor absorptive capacity or its ability to spend its budgetary allocations within a given year.
In 2019, he added, the DoTr disbursed only PhP10.5 billion of its PhP54-billion outlay and in 2018, it disbursed only PhP26 billion out of its PhP57-billion share of the national budget.
“In the last five years, we have appropriated more than PhP330 billion (for DoTr), yet we have only disbursed more or less PhP70 to PhP75 billion. That cost us P250 billion in appropriations which could have been spent for other things,” he said.
It was not immediately clear which items were affected by the PhP35-billion cut, but Poe’s camp said the amount would be set aside to augment funding for the government’s COVID-19 response and disaster relief.
“We achieved the cut while adding a P5-billion subsidy for those in the public utility vehicle sector,” the lady senator said.
“We need to scrutinize the budget and be more unforgiving when it comes to wastage. People are suffering and jeepney drivers have been without income for too long,” she said.
The Senate opted to defer approval of the LTO budget pending its explanation on a number of issues raised by the senators, such as the “much-delayed delivery of license plates,” according to her.
Senator Richard Gordon castigated the LTO for the delayed implementation of a law compelling motorcycles to use bigger and more readable license plates to prevent crimes by ‘tandem riders’.
Under the DoTr budget, the senators approved the following outlays: the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) with PhP203 million; the Maritime Industry Authority (MIA), PhP765 million; Office of Transportation Cooperatives (OTC), PhP36 million; Office for Transportation Security, (OTS) PhP338 million; and the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), PhP13 billion.
Since aviation “took the hardest hit” during the pandemic, the Senate added PhP1.533 billion for the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP), which originally did not get any funding.
Another PhP60.8 million was added to the CAB outlay.
The Senate also earmarked a PhP1.018-billion budget for the Light Rail Transit (LRT) and another PhP1.23 billion for the Philippine National Railway (PNR).
Recto said the COVID-19 crisis had put the country’s health system to a “stress test,” whose results “are not good” and should have prompted the government to ramp up health spending.
“(This is) not just to confront an ongoing health crisis but also to lay the ground for a health system that is in a better position to respond to future pandemics and the medical needs of a growing population,” he said.
The senator said “conventional wisdom” has led senators to expect a “pandemic bump” in the health budget for new equipment and buildings.
“But no such thing happened. There was no booster shot,” he concluded. (AI/MTVN)