Early last week, I sponsored the committee report on 2021 budget, marking the beginning of plenary debates in the Senate. The national budget is one of the most important legislative measures that Congress must craft and pass every year. It is even more important now: disease, calamity, economic slowdown, and social upheaval are threatening our country, and the struggle to find a path out of these dark times is of utmost importance. And passing next year’s national budget is an important step.
In our proposal, healthcare will be given even more support. Up to P16.6 billion will be allocated to enable the DOH to hire even more medical frontliners, with P2.7 billion dedicated to purchasing personal protective equipment (PPEs). Significant funding will also be used to improve healthcare facilities in areas with a high density of poor households, and provide 1,633 health facilities with adequate medical equipment, laboratories, and isolation units.
Looking to the future, we’ve proposed additional funds for the purchase of COVID-19 vaccines. Adding to the P5.5 billion inserted by the House of Representatives, we aim to set aside an extra P10 billion as unprogrammed appropriations for the sole purpose of buying vaccines in bulk for our countrymen. But while we’re still waiting for the vaccine, additional funds will be devoted to purchase more COVID-19 test kits and other necessary supplies.
We have to remember though that there are other health challenges that need to be addressed. Hence, the DOH’s Mental Health Program shall receive an increase, while up to P1 billion will be devoted for cancer-related programs. The DOH’s Complementary Feeding Program to fight malnutrition among children will also receive a higher budget. So will initiatives to assist pregnant teenagers and adolescent mothers, and programs for addressing communicable diseases, like tuberculosis.
When it comes to education, we see our schools struggling through distance and blended modes of learning, with nearly three million fewer students. This is why we increased the budget for the Flexible Learning Options program, as it encourages teachers and students to use alternate modes of learning, through radio, television, and modules, all of which do not need close contact.
With the budget we are proposing, our public school teachers will also receive a token amount for World Teachers’ Day and a raise in their annual “chalk” allowance from P3,500 to P5,000. These extra benefits are but simple extensions of our support for our educators, many of whom have had to rethink how to do their jobs almost overnight.
The implementation of the Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act (UAQTEA) will also continue, where P18.7 billion will be used for free tuition and related school fees for about 1.34 million students. Up to 850,000 students will also receive Tertiary Education Subsidies worth P24.5 billion in all, and another P1.696 billion will be allocated for student financial assistance programs. We also proposed Increased funding for medical scholarships and the allied return service program, and the establishment of a seed fund for the development of medical schools in state universities and colleges (SUCs).
In terms of reskilling or upskilling our workforce, TESDA will receive funding for its various programs. The Tulong Trabaho Scholarship will have P1 billion allocated, with Training for Work Scholarship having P3.9 billion, and Special Training for Employment assigned P1.8 billion.
The pandemic has also made clear that we need to develop our ICT infrastructure. To complement the directives for streamlining the permit and licensing process for building network infrastructure outlined in Bayanihan 2, we proposed significant budgetary increases for the DICT’s National Broadband Program and its Free Internet Wi-Fi connectivity in Public Places and SUCs initiative, so that more locations across the country can go online next year.
These recommended budget items are just a few out of many. And we in the Senate will be debating about them in the next few weeks in the hopes of crafting a more responsive and representative budget. We hope to further refine this measure, once the bicameral conference is convened with our colleagues from the House of Representatives.
We cannot allow COVID-19 to block our dreams and ambitions; hopefully, as our country recovers and prepares for the future, the 2021 budget will lead the way out of this pandemic prison.
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Senator Sonny Angara has been in public service for 16 years—9 years as Representative of the Lone District of Aurora, and 7 as Senator. He has authored and sponsored more than 200 laws. He is currently serving his second term in the Senate.