By Charmaine A. Tadalan and Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza, Reporters
THE SENATE on Thursday passed on final reading the P4.5-trillion national budget for next year, which lawmakers said would boost government response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Twenty-two senators voted to approve the proposed General Appropriations Act of 2021, which is targeted to be enacted by yearend. There were no negative votes or abstentions.
Detained Senator Leila M. de Lima and Senator Ronald M. dela Rosa, who tested positive for the coronavirus last week, failed to vote.
“Much of the increases the committee has made is in the health sector and with regard to our COVID-19 response,” Senator Juan Edgardo M. Angara said during Thursday’s session.
President Rodrigo R. Duterte had certified the budget as an urgent measure, allowing the chamber to pass the bill on second and third reading on the same day.
Mr. Angara, who heads the finance committee, said the budget includes P8 billion for vaccines under the Department of Health (DoH) budget. About P54 billion was also set aside for vaccines and P21 billion for their storage, transportation and distribution under unprogrammed funds.
Regional hospitals will get P1.6 billion, while health facilities will get P6.497 billion under DoH.
Senators also allotted P21 billion for the country’s disaster response and P15 billion for local governments’ rehabilitation programs after recent typhoons.
“Our experience in the past few weeks has only underscored how we continue to be threatened by natural calamities,” Mr. Angara said.
“This is why your committee has elected to augment different policies and programs with regard to our disaster response and mitigation,” he added.
At least P180 billion will be used to fund various social welfare programs such as cash aid to displaced workers and conditional cash transfers to the poor.
The fund will also be used to implement a national ID system and help low-income households affected by the pandemic.
The education sector will get the biggest share of the budget with P712.348 billion, which is mandated by the Constitution.
The Senate version of the budget bill increased the budget of the Department of Information and Communications Technology by P5 billion to P15.34 billion.
Senators and congressmen are expected to reconcile disagreeing provisions of their bills at a bicameral conference committee from Nov. 28 to Dec. 3. They plan to approve a reconciled version by Dec. 9, which will be sent to the presidential palace by Dec. 16.
Members of the Senate contingent include Senators Pia S. Cayetano, Cynthia A. Villar, Panfilo M. Lacson, Sherwin T. Gatchalian, Richard J. Gordon, Christopher Lawrence T. Go, Imee R. Marcos, Risa N. Hontiveros-Baraquel, Grace S. Poe-Llamanzares, and Francis N. Pangilinan.
Senators dela Rosa, Emmanuel D. Pacquiao, Maria Lourdes Nancy S. Binay and Ramon B. Revilla, Jr. will act as alternates.
“We now look forward to sitting with our Senate counterparts in conference possibly starting next week to come up with a common version of the budget,” Speaker Lord Alan Q. Velasco said in a statement.
He said the House of Representatives had formed a contingent composed of 21 members from various political parties to represent it at the bicameral conference on the 2021 budget bill.
“These representatives will make sure there will be enough funds for the government’s COVID-19 response, especially the procurement of vaccines for an initial 20 million poor Filipinos and eventually for at least 60 million of our population,” he added.
“We also want to ensure sufficient funding for the rehabilitation and recovery of communities devastated by recent typhoons, including Rolly and Ulysses,” Mr. Velasco said. “We should help our people rebuild their lives.”
The House on Wednesday night named 21 congressmen who will form part of the bicameral conference committee on the 2021 budget.
Mr. Velasco in an earlier statement said the bill must be sent to the palace for Mr. Duterte’s signature before the year ends to prevent a re-enacted spending program that could slow economic growth and hamper the delivery of government services in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The House contingent will be led by Party-list Rep. Eric G. Yap, who heads the committee on appropriations.
He will be joined by several congressmen from the majority including Oriental Mindoro Rep. Salvador C. Leachon, Party-list Rep. Odylon L. Romero, Leyte Rep. Ferdinand Martin G. Romualdez, Antique Rep. Loren B. Legarda and Ilocos Sur Rep. Kristine Singson-Meehan.
Antipolo City Rep. Roberto V. Puno, Albay Rep. Jose Maria Clemente S. Salceda, and Party-list Reps. Jose Livioko Atienza Jr. and Bernadette Herrera-Dy are also part of the committee.
Also joining the contingent are Party-list Rep. Joseph Stephen S. Paduano, a minority lawmaker, and independent Albay Rep. Edcel C. Lagman.
Mr. Velasco earlier said the House would seek an increase of at least P5 billion in the 2021 calamity fund for the rebuilding of areas devastated by recent typhoons.