Sotto asks Duterte to call for special session to approve coronavirus fund

Aika Rey
Sotto asks Duterte to call for special session to approve coronavirus fund
(UPDATED) Senate President Vicente Sotto III also proposes a food subsidy budget, while Senator Panfilo Lacson pushes for an allowance for senior citizens during the Luzon lockdown

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Senate President Vicente Sotto III is pushing for a special session to approve a supplemental budget, including a food subsidy fund for disadvantaged households, during the one-month total lockdown in Luzon.

The Senate president told reporters on Thursday, March 19, that Malacañang has yet to call for a special session. Sotto’s proposal is on top of the P3.1-billion supplemental budget request of the Department of Health (DOH).

“I suggest for Congress to pass a food subsidy budget in order to provide for the daily wage earners who lost their income,” Sotto said in a statement, adding that he had already discussed his proposal with Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III and an unnamed high-level economist.

Sotto said that while P500 per day per family is the ideal subsidy, he proposed at least P300 per day per family, which would amount to a total of P27 billion for Metro Manila’s 3 million poor families. He added that the rate may also vary for regions outside Metro Manila.

“Assuming there are 3 million poorest of the poor in [the National Capital Region], with each family consisting of 5 members, that will be 15 million NCR residents who will be assured that their families will not go hungry while the ECQ (enhanced community quarantine) is in place,” Sotto said.

While the Senate president agreed that social distancing and working from home is necessary during the lockdown, he said the government should make an exception for a special session.

“Lawmakers should bite the bitter pill in an emergency situation such as this. We need to get on our feet and make sure that our people, especially the poorest of the poor, do not worry about going hungry at a time when they should be focusing their attention on staying healthy,” Sotto said, adding that Congress can still hold a special session with a skeleton work force.

Senator Panfilo Lacson, meanwhile, is pushing for a monthly subsidy for senior citizens.

Senator Bong Go said he also recommends the holding of a special session for the budget. Go chairs the Senate health committee.

Unlike the House of Representatives, the Senate finance panel did not pass a supplemental budget for the DOH before Congress went on break on March 14. The House committee on appropriations on March 10 already approved a P1.65-billion supplemental budget for DOH.

On Thursday, House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano said the lower chamber will be ready when the President decides to hold a special session.

“We are willing to have special sessions to come up with a feasible and pragmatic economic package. We can adapt special rules like online voting if necessary, and practice social distancing measures to accommodate all our members, including those who are currently in self-quarantine,” Cayetano said.

The House Speaker added that he wants to prioritize the passage of a measure which would “grant more flexibility” regarding the use of funds to allow quicker disbursement and immediate support for those affected by the lockdown.

“We have started discussions with our colleagues in Congress and the executive [branch] on how to operationalize short- and medium-term economic programs, and reduce bureaucratic procedures to help those who are going to be adversely affected by COVID-19,” Cayetano said.

President Rodrigo Duterte declared a state of calamity in the Philippines, as coronavirus cases continue to rise. As of Wednesday, March 18, there are 202 patients who have tested positive for COVID-19, 17 of whom have died.

More than 209,000 people have been infected by the disease worldwide, with more than 8,700 deaths, reported Agence France-Presse. – with a report from Mara Cepeda/Rappler.com

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Aika Rey

Aika Rey is a business reporter for Rappler. She covered the Senate of the Philippines before fully diving into numbers and companies. Got tips? Find her on Twitter at @reyaika or shoot her an email at aika.rey@rappler.com.