COVID-19 response, IT upgrades in focus in ₱4.5T national budget for 2021

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, August 25) — The country's COVID-19 fight will receive another boost under the proposed 2021 national budget, alongside efforts to upgrade connectivity among industries.

The Budget Department handed over the ₱4.506-trillion proposed spending plan to the House of Representatives on Tuesday in a short ceremony inside Batasan Complex. The budget is nearly a tenth higher than the ₱4.1 trillion funds allocated this year.

The cash budget is dubbed "Reset, Rebound, and Recover," alluding to the country's continuing need to support programs for COVID-19 response and economic recovery.

Spending priorities

Social services dominated the allocations with ₱1.66 trillion, accounting for nearly 37 percent. A big chunk of the amount will go to universal healthcare at ₱203.1 billion, led by ₱71.4 billion to be managed by PhilHealth. The agency is currently in hot water over multiple corruption allegations.

The government has so far spent ₱376 billion for coronavirus prevention and cure. Meanwhile, the Bayanihan to Recover as One Act, which is set to be signed into law soon, will provide an additional ₱165.5 billion for response measures and economic stimulus programs.

Next year, the Budget Department wants to allot another ₱16.6 billion to pay and hire health workers, ₱4.8 billion to upgrade medical facilities, ₱2.7 billion for additional personal protective equipment, and ₱2.5 billion to buy COVID-19 vaccines. This is on top of a ₱10 billion standby fund under the Bayanihan 2 bill.

The government is also setting aside ₱1 billion to buy additional coronavirus test kits.

Meanwhile, infrastructure projects under the "Build, Build, Build" program will receive ₱1.107 trillion.

The Department of Public Works and Highways will receive the bulk of funds for network development, flood control, and asset preservation programs. On the other hand, the Department of Transportation will receive ₱106.3 billion to fund railway projects on the pipeline.

A special focus is also given to medium-term information technology upgrades, which will receive ₱21.4 billion. Of the amount, ₱7.6 billion is earmarked for adapting to the "post-COVID life," such as for telecommunication infrastructure and for education.

Budget Secretary Wendel Avisado said proposed projects seek to usher the shift towards digital government services and support e-commerce with more efficient online infrastructure.

By agency, the education cluster still tops the list, getting ₱754.4 billion to include provisions for free college education in state universities. The Public Works Department follows with ₱667.3 billion, while the Interior Department came third with ₱246.1 billion.

Among the major programs funded under the spending plan are dole outs under the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (₱113.8 billion), irrigation services (₱31.5 billion), and efforts to combat communist armed conflict (₱19.1 billion).

Fast deliberations eyed

For his part, House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano vowed to scrutinize the budget as he targets to finish discussions in the chamber by September. The measure will have to go through Senate scrutiny as well.

"I must give fair warning to the departments: if we find out that you are offline, hindi kayo maabot ng constituents or delayed sa inyo [constituents cannot reach your or your services are delayed]... Don't expect a smooth budget hearing or a good budget for next year," Cayetano said, adding that they will go easy on agencies considered as "frontliners" in the health crisis.

The lawmaker said he wants the budget to be ready for President Rodrigo Duterte's signature by mid-November, adding that safeguards will be installed against corruption.

The 2019 and 2020 budgets were signed relatively late compared to previous years. In particular, last year's budget was signed four months late, which left new projects unfunded and stifled economic growth.

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