Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph G. Recto today said stepped up spending is the best calamity response “as keeping funds in the treasury is like withholding rice in the bodegas when people are hungry.”
Recto said billions of pesos in unreleased balances in the 2020 national budget should now be released “like water in dams.”
“We have to flood areas with help. Not trickle down aid that is good enough for bags of groceries. But appropriated funds for targeted expenditures as a way of helping the victims and the economy,” he stressed.
Recto made the call as the government’s underspending was revealed during his interpellation on the proposed 2021 P4.5 trillion national budget.
Of the P4.3 trillion spending program for the year, only P3.022 trillion has been released as of September, economic cluster officials in attendance confirmed.
“But most of the releases are for overhead, like salaries. Konti lang ang (it is very small) for economic pump-priming,” Recto said.
Recto said even the much-vaunted P386.1 billion released for COVID-19 responses authorized by the first Bayanihan Law “were realigned funds, not new money, carved out of the 2020 budget, so whether pandemic or not, these are already committed funds.’’
The same “timid and tepid” releasing of funds is also evident in the utilization of the second Bayanihan Law.
Finance and Budget officials in attendance confirmed that of the P140 billion in programmed appropriations and P25 billion in unprogrammed appropriations, the said law authorized only P82.4 billion has so far been released.
Recto said “this below-program underspending could be one of the reasons why our economy contracted 11.5 percent in the third quarter.”
“Budget should be a stimulus. In areas where the virus has caused an economic free-fall, government spending on social aid and capital outlays are expected to be the saviors,” Recto said.
Recto said “a last quarter storm” in spending is needed, especially on typhoon-hit areas, because these are in economically robust regions in Luzon, which are also agricultural powerhouses.
“And the definition of good spending is not just releasing funds to the agencies, but the agencies releasing them to the people, or finally disbursing them for what they have been intended for,” Recto said.
In the course of Recto’s questioning on the economic underpinnings of the 2021 budget, it was revealed that the pandemic has caused P1.8 trillion in economic losses to date, “without the typhoons factored in.”
“Wala pa ang sa bagyo (The typhoons have not been factored so far). So far, P82 billion pa lang damages. And this will increase in the days ahead,” Recto said.
He said “disaster accounting” could only compute the price of an infrastructure damaged.
“Madaling sabihin na itong 1-kilometer na kalsada na na-landslide, ito ang halaga. Pero kung doon dumadaan ang bigas, negosyo, pagkain at kalakal, paano mo ma-e-estimate ang perwisyong naidulot?” he asked. (it is easy to say the damage to a one-kilometer of road is this much. But the road is used for the transport of rice, businesses, food and merchandises. How then could you estimate the damage?)
Recto said what remains of the Calamity Fund this year would not be enough for relief operations—so how much more for rehabilitation?
“As of November 13, P8.6 billion na lang ang natira. Kulang pantapal. Band-aid lang sa napakalaking sugat. Calamity fund is the icing on the cake. Let us spend the whole cake,” Recto said. (..only P8.6 billion is left. It is not enough. It is a band-aid solution for a very big wound.)
“Can we spend the rest of the Calamity Fund with dispatch? People who lost their jobs, got sick because of the pandemic and lost their homes cannot wait until January,” Recto said.
Aside from gross domestic product (GDP), another economic indicator that woukd worsen, he said, is unemployment.
“The farm sector is a major employer. Kaya malaki tama doon,’’ he pointed out. (That is where the big blow took place.)