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Criminal delay in relief

/ 05:30 AM February 14, 2021

Why the delay? Where did the unreleased money go? Who benefited from it? These are the questions that 37 congressmen, including five deputy speakers, want answered as they filed last Feb. 8 House Resolution No. 1558 seeking an investigation into the delay in the disbursement of the stimulus funds provided under Republic Act No. 11494 or the Bayanihan 2 law, which was enacted five months ago.

The lawmakers noted that while 73.74 percent of the P165 billion funds (P140 billion appropriations and P25.5 billion standby funds) under RA 11494 have been released, 26.26 percent remained undisbursed for some reason. The unreleased funds were meant as equity infusion to government financial institutions providing loans or “ayuda” to Filipinos during the public health crisis, and the failure to release them had major consequences. Had the money been disbursed faster, said Marikina Rep. Stella Quimbo, one of the authors of the House resolution, it could have helped reduce the economic contraction of the Philippine economy to 8.2 percent, while about 1.3 percent could have been added to the gross domestic product last year.

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The congressmen also cited complaints from their constituents over “the slow implementation of other forms of direct relief under Bayanihan 2,” and that national agencies have not even properly reported the utilization rates of funds given to them under the law to see whether they have indeed benefited the public.

In the Senate, opposition Sen. Francis Pangilinan also filed a similar resolution questioning the snail-paced disbursement of funds. “Bakit mabagal? Minadali natin sa Kongreso ang dalawang Bayanihan at ang budget para masigurong may magagamit na pondo para sa maayos na pag-control ng COVID,” Pangilinan said in a statement. “Alam natin na ito ang susi sa pagbangon ng ating ekonomiya. Pero kung from disbursement at utilization sobrang bagal, baka patay na ang kabayo, ’ika nga,” he added. He further cited delays in the release of the salary of contact tracers, hazard pay, and special allowances of health workers, cash subsidies to jeepney drivers, and P83 billion for the Department of Social Welfare and Development. “These delays and underspending are unacceptable given that Bayanihan 2 was signed into law Sept. 11, 2020,” Pangilinan said.

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As early as October last year, or a month since RA 11494 became law, senators were already calling for the immediate release of Bayanihan 2 funds after finding through Senate hearings that funds aimed at assisting hard-hit sectors had yet to be released. At the time, Sen. Joel Villanueva said: “It is important to note that when we passed Bayanihan 2 (Bayanihan to Recover as One Act) we [were] all in agreement that we are in an emergency situation.” In the end, Congress had to pass a new law, RA 11519, in December last year extending the validity of the Bayanihan 2 law until June 30 this year.

Questioned over the delays, Department of Budget and Management assistant secretary and spokesperson Rolando U. Toledo contended that 97.7 percent or P136.81 billion of the P140-billion appropriations under Bayanihan 2 has already been released, and that the release of the remaining P3.19-billion balance “will depend on the submission of the requests of the implementing agencies with complete supporting documents.”

The DBM’s rosy scenario, in the face of the lawmakers’ own figures showing otherwise, should all the more prod Congress to push through with an exhaustive investigation of the funds’ use, not only to insist on transparency and accountability in the deployment of billions of taxpayer money at a time of great emergency, but also to pinpoint gaps and shortcomings in the relevant policies and processes, which have real-time repercussions in the lives of ordinary people. Any delay in the release of funds under Bayanihan 2—whether through red tape or lack of urgency on the part of the national government—amounts to unconscionable negligence and callousness, given that the country is suffering its worst post-World War II recession and the jobless rate averaged 10.2 percent last year as scores of businesses laid off millions of workers.

In filing HR 1558, lawmakers reminded the Duterte administration that “the economy cannot afford slow implementation of government relief programs that have already been approved and authorized, especially as the World Bank and other international institutions warn that the country will recover more slowly than its peers in the East Asia and Pacific region.”

Some congressmen are now eyeing a third Bayanihan bill to the tune of P420 billion. But shouldn’t they first ensure that the previous allotments have been properly accounted for, and that hard-up Filipinos actually received their share of the money? And if not—what in heaven’s name happened, and who should answer for this criminal neglect?

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