House, Senate agree to set P162-B pandemic response fund under Bayanihan 2

Both houses of Congress agreed to set the total funding for coronavirus recovery programs under the proposed Bayanihan to Recover as One Act at P162 billion, though only P140 billion will be "readily available."

This was confirmed to Rappler by Zamboanga Sibugay 1st District Representative Wilter Wee Palma II and Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri on Monday, August 17, the second time the bicameral conference committee met to settle the conflicting provisions of the Senate and House versions of Bayanihan 2.

“Ang ia-allocate namin ‘yong P162 billion [na proposed by the House], but ang readily available funding will be P140 billion. Magkakaroon lang ng another proviso na in the event na makahanap sila (executive branch) ng pera later on, naka-standby na ‘yong authority,” said Palma.

(What we are allocating is the P162 billion proposed by the House, but the readily available funding will be P140 billion. We will just be adding another proviso saying that in the event that they will find additional money later on, the authority to disburse is on standby already.)

When Zubiri was asked to confirm this, the senator replied, “Yes, that’s right.”

This means that once Bayanihan 2 becomes a law, President Rodrigo Duterte's government would be able to tap into P140 billion, which would be primarily sourced from off-budget government savings and tax collections.

The remaining P22 billion would become a standby fund and would be available only if the executive branch finds additional sources for them.

The total COVID-19 pandemic response and recovery fund had been the biggest discrepancy between the Bayanihan 2 versions of both chambers. 

The House had set the total at P162 billion, but senators pegged it at a much lower amount at P140 billion because the Department of Finance said the government cannot fund anything more than that.

If passed into law, the Bayanihan 2 would extend to December 31, 2020 the validity of the special powers Congress earlier granted to Duterte to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. 

Assistance to frontliners, subsidies for affected sectors

Both the House and Senate versions of Bayanihan 2 have provisions to fund the government’s expanded COVID-19 testing, purchase protective gear for frontliners, and construct more isolation facilities. 

The Bayanihan 2 would also provide a one-month emergency subsidy to qualified low-income households who were not able to get the first tranche of cash aid granted to 18 million families.  

The bill would direct government financial institutions to provide loans, subsidies, discounts, and grants for businesses affected by the pandemic. 

Displaced workers would be given unemployment or involuntary separation assistance, while teaching and non-teaching personnel would also be granted one-time cash assistance.

Students who are not receiving any educational subsidy from the government but who are now facing financial difficulties due to the pandemic would also receive tuition subsidy.

House Deputy Speaker Luis Raymund Villafuerte told reporters that the bicam is expected to finalize the breakdown of the P162-billion fund on Wednesday, August 19. 

The bicam mebmers already agreed during the first meeting on August 14 to authorize the release of a P15,000 cash assistance to every healthcare worker who will contract a mild or moderate case of COVID-19. 

The House’s contingent to the bicam also conceded “in principle" to shorten their proposed one-year loan moratorium under the Bayanihan 2 to just a maximum of 60 days.

The bicam also adopted Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon’s motion to ease the construction of cell towers by suspending for 3 years many of the permits that telecommunication companies are required to submit. – with reports from JC Gotinga/Rappler.com

Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda writes about politics and women’s rights for Rappler. She covers the Senate and the Office of the Vice President. Got tips? Send her an email at mara.cepeda@rappler.com or shoot her a tweet @maracepeda.

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