Budget, COVID crisis seen as SONA topic

THE passage of the 2021 national budget and President Rodrigo Duterte's coronavirus disease-19 (COVID-19) roadmap for recovery will take center stage during the opening of the Second Regular Session this Monday, House Majority Leader and Leyte Rep. Martin Romualdez said yesterday.

Romualdez, chairman of the powerful House Committee on Rules, said he expects that the 2021 spending program “will likely be a stimulus budget to revive the economy, which is reeling from lockdowns due to the pandemic.”

“We also expect that the national budget for next year will focus on the health sector and the improvement of its facilities nationwide,” said Romualdez, recalling that Congress also approved the “Bayanihan to Heal as One Act of 2020" or Republic Act (RA) No. 11469 to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We expect the President to spell out in his SONA (State of the Nation Address) the full details of his COVID-19 roadmap for recovery and other priority measures for the Second Regular Session. It is expected to hear from him the next steps to bring our country forward in the wake of the economic devastation caused by the pandemic. We are faced with a heavy task ahead but we are confident that, under President [Rodrigo] Duterte's leadership, we are going to survive this ordeal and come out stronger and wiser as a nation,” Romualdez said.

“The SONA is the biggest platform that allows President Duterte to capsulize what his administration has accomplished in the year that passed. For this year's SONA, I am optimistic that the President will give us a detailed account of what we have done so far in addressing the myriad of problems plaguing the Filipino nation,” said Romualdez.

“We are going to hit the ground running. Time to roll up our sleeves once again and work double time to immediately pass the national budget and the COVID-19 roadmap for recovery. This is our commitment to support all the efforts of President Duterte to win the COVID-19 battle and ensure the country’s survival from the pandemic,” Romualdez, who co-chaired the Defeat COVID-19 Ad Hoc Committee (DCC) with Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano, said.

Romualdez also recalled that, in record time, the House of Representatives approved the 2019 national budget on third and final reading on September 20, 2019 or exactly one month after the August 20, 2019 submission of the Department of Budget and Management (DBM).

“We will work hard this year to accomplish our mission to duplicate the House’s record time approval of the national budget. We are always committed and inspired to work harder, smarter and more efficiently to expedite and improve the delivery of basic services to the people and defeat COVID-19,” Romualdez said.

“I consider as the biggest accomplishment the speedy, yet exhaustive, deliberation on the 2020 General Appropriations Bill (GAB) which was approved by the House of Representatives in record time. We made sure that the 2020 GAB was transmitted to the Senate in October 2019 so we could successfully legislate this year's expenditure plan before the year-end, and get our programs running this year. This feat was made possible by reforms we have instituted in the chamber like the simultaneous subcommittee-level hearings, to name one,” Romualdez pointed out.

It was the third time in the history of Congress that the House of Representatives approved the national budget on second and third reading on the same day after the President certified it as an urgent measure.

But the present leadership of the 18th Congress is now the record holder in terms of the earliest date, September 20, 2019, that the national budget was approved on third and final reading.

Based on the records of the House Committee on Rules, the 16th Congress approved the 2016 national budget on second and third reading on October 9, 2015, after it was certified urgent by then-President Benigno Aquino III.

During the 13th Congress, the 2007 national budget was approved on second and third reading on October 13, 2006, after it was certified as an urgent measure by then-President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

Romualdez said the House of Representatives will continue its deliberations on some of the priority legislation of the President like the Creation of the Department of Disaster Resilience (DDR), which is in the period of interpellations.

Other SONA priorities are the following: the proposed fire protection modernization programs, which is under committee report preparation; creation of the Department of Water Resources and Services and creation of the Water Regulatory Commission, as well as Additional Benefits for Solo Parents are both under committee/technical working group deliberations.

Romualdez also noted that five SONA-priority measures had been signed into law during their leadership. These include the Postponement of the May 2020 Barangay and Sangguniang Kabataan Elections; Establishment of Malasakit Centers; Increasing and Restructuring the Excise Tax Rates on Alcohol, Heated Tobacco, and Vapor Products; Creation of the National Academy of Sports; and The Salary Standardization Law of 2019 which increased the salaries of teachers and nurses.

The House leader said the remaining SONA-priority measures approved by the House and now pending in the Senate are the Public Service Act, Creation of Department of Filipinos Overseas and Foreign Employment, Corporate Income Tax & Incentives Rationalization Act (CITIRA), Passive Income and Financial Intermediary Taxation Act (PIFITA), and the Real Property Valuation and Assessment Act.

Before adjourning sine die last June 5, Romualdez recalled that the House of Representatives had approved on third and final reading six major pieces of legislation that aim to strengthen the government's efforts against COVID-19 and mitigate the economic impacts of the global health crisis.

These include House Bill (HB) No. 6815 or the P1.3 trillion Accelerated Recovery and Investments Stimulus for the Economy of the Philippines (ARISE Philippines Act), which was crafted primarily to protect jobs and support job-creating businesses; HB No. 6865 or the “Crushing COVID-19 Act", which mandates the conduct of baseline Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) testing as the protocol for COVID-19 testing for the vulnerable members of society, including those who do not have symptoms; HB No. 6817 or the proposed COVID-19-Related Anti-Discrimination Act, which seeks to protect persons who are confirmed, suspect or probable COVID-19 cases; HB No.6816 or the proposed Financial Institutions Strategic Transfer (FIST) Act, which seeks to help financial institutions to resolve their debts and manage their non-performing assets (NPAs) during and after the pandemic; HB No.6920 or the COVID-19 Unemployment Reduction Economic Stimulus (CURES) Act of 2020; and HB No. 6895 or the Republic Act (RA) No. 11480, which empowers the President to adjust the start of the school year during a state of emergency or state of calamity.

The House of Representatives also approved on second reading HB No.6864 or the proposed "Better Normal for the Workplace, Communities and Public Spaces Act of 2020" to prepare and educate Filipinos for life through new norms of social or physical distancing and safety measures in government and private offices, schools, commercial establishments and other public spaces.

“These anti-COVID measures are designed to kick-start the economy through infrastructure spending programs that would create jobs and boost our public health system. Definitely, all House members should be commended for rising to the challenge of these uncertain times, for working hard until 12 midnight and attending sessions that lasted until Thursdays and Fridays,” Romualdez pointed out.