The P4.506-trillion 2021 General Appropriations Bill (GAB) passed by the House of Representatives on October 16 at the end of a four-day special session focuses –among others – on improvement of the country’s healthcare systems, education, and ensuring food security. The special session was called by President Duterte to avoid delay in the passage of the bill.
House Bill 7727 foremostly addresses problems that beset education sector which understandably got the biggest chunk of the budget, owing to the long lockdowns that stalled learning programs around the country. It also pours resources on the creation of more jobs by investing in labor-intensive projects, enabling a digital government and economy, and helping communities cope with the pandemic.
One good news we got is that the 2021 GAB has an initial appropriation amounting to P5.5 billion for the purchase of a COVID-19 vaccine, seen to be out by early next year. Recent reports said China’s Sinovac Biotech has submitted its application to the Food and Drug Administration to conduct Phase III clinical trials for its candidate vaccine in the Philippines.
The Sinovac vaccine was said to have recently passed the evaluation of the Department of Science and Technology‘s experts panel, which was first of the three stages of evaluation required before a clinical trial can be conducted. Japan’s Avigan is also said to be around the corner.
The 2021 GAB, certified urgent by the President himself, was passed just minutes after its second-reading approval, under the leadership of newly installed Speaker Rep. Lord Alan Velasco of Marinduque. The entire amount exceeds by 9.9 percent the 2020 budget and represents 21.8 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP). It got 257 affirmative and six negative votes in the house.
Calling a special session was the right thing to do for the President to avoid delays on the passage of the 2021 GAB, owing to a brief squabble over the speakership between Velasco and erstwhile speaker Alan Peter Cayetano (Taguig City-Pateros).
Cayetano suspended the sessions until November 16, in the middle of the budget deliberations, a date that would be already a month away past the initial deadline of October 16. Velasco’s leadership conducted the deliberations fast enough to hit the deadline at the final hour of the four-day marathon sessions.
Velasco said passing the 2021 GAB on time and transmitting it immediately to the Senate will give their counterparts in the upper chamber ample time to review the national budget. It also assures everyone that the country won’t have a reenacted budget by January next year, and that the new budget carries the fiscal stimulus for economic recovery and the resources to contain the spread and mitigate the effects of COVID-19.
House Committee on Appropriations Senior Vice Chair Joey Sarte Salceda said later they have introduced a total of P20 billion in “institutional amendments” to the GAB to increase funding for Covid-19 vaccine, displaced workers and internet connection for public schools.
The small committee meeting was tasked to thresh out all the amendments to the proposed national budget and had finished deliberating on all the amendments in one hearing on Monday, October 19, according to Salceda.
The P20 billion will be taken from the unprogrammed funds of the Department of Transportation, and was distributed as follows: P5.5 billion Covid-19 vaccine, P300 million to implement the mental health program and P2 billion for the Health Facilities Enhancement Program, among others.
The amendments are seen to empower the government to confront socioeconomic impacts of the pandemic and restore the Philippines as a nation state to its trajectory of growth, maintain macroeconomic stability and make growth gains sustainable.
Under the 2021 GAB, the education sector got the highest allocation at P754.4 billion, which was higher than its 2020 budget of P650.2 billion. It covers DepEd, CHED, TESDA, and state universities and colleges across the country.
The DPWH gets P667.3 billion; DILG, P246.1 billion; DND, P209.1 billion; DOH, P203.1 billion; DSWD, P171.2 billion; DOTr, P143.6 billion; DA, P66.4 billion; DOJ, P43.5 billion; and DOLE, P27.5 billion.