Gov't says COVID-19 funds running low, floats idea of selling state assets as last resort

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, April 24) — As President Rodrigo Duterte announced another extension of the enhanced community quarantine, his administration admitted the country's funds for COVID-19 response continues to dwindle nearly three months since the Philippines recorded its first COVID-19 cases.

"We are running low of funds," Duterte said in a taped briefing which aired on Friday.

Budget Secretary Wendel Avisado said the government has already spent P352 billion of the P397 billion that the national government is allowed to realign from the 2020 budget through the special powers granted by the Congress in March.

Finance Chief Sonny Dominguez said the country has spent the “unplanned” amount of P352.7 billion in order to aid those whose lives and livelihood are upended by the health crisis. He said that although there are barely any tax collections, Filipinos’ needs were being financed by government savings and loans from the Asian Development Bank and World Bank, which have reached ₱310 billion. He said, however, that government has to reassess its priorities to make sure the budget will be enough.

“So far sufficient po ang cash natin pero naiiipit na po tayo sa budget allowance natin. Iyan po ang problema natin ngayon, may cash tayo pero wala tayong authority gumastos ng ganoon kalaki. So we're making sure na lahat ng gastos natin ay number one for the benefit ng pinakamahirap sa bayan natin,” Dominguez said.

[Translation: So far we have enough cash but we are being constrained by the budget allowance. The problem is that we have enough cash but we don’t have the authority to spend that much. So we are making sure that we prioritize spending for the benefit of the poorest in our country.]

Avisado is worried about the source of funding if the number of confirmed cases in the Philippines continues to rise.

“Kapag mag-second wave, paano ‘yun? We have to come up with a forward planning. That would require a lot of funding. Under the ‘new normal,’ dapat we can provide more jobs to the people,” the budget chief said.

[Translation: What will we do in case of a second wave of cases? We have to plan ahead. That will require a lot of funding. When we shift to the ‘new normal,’ we should be able to provide more jobs to the people.]

Duterte asked Congress to authorize the use of additional funds for COVID-19 response. Senator Sonny Angara is confident the Congress will swiftly act if the executive branch requests for a supplementary budget.

"If a supplemental budget is needed, I'm sure both houses of Congress will hear and pass that to authorize the President and the Executive branch to spend more or to realign from existing budgetary items. This is to meet the challenges posed by the virus which were unknown when we passed the 2020 budget and we acknowledge that the President may need some flexibility to react to future contingencies," he said in a statement. 

Speaking to CNN Philippines' The Source, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said the government will no longer release the second tranche of cash subsidy to residents in areas where the enhanced community quarantine has been been lifted. Instead, the money will now be given to more families in Metro Manila and other areas which remain under lockdown due to COVID-19.

The lockdown was extended until May 15 in Metro Manila, Calabarzon, Central Luzon, and several other provinces considered COVID-19 hotspots. Prior to this, cash aid of P5,000 to P8,000 was given to select sectors all over Luzon.

President Rodrigo Duterte said several projects of the Departments of Social Welfare, Public Works, Trade and Industry, and Health have to be halted for the budget to be realigned to the government’s COVID-19 response.

“First, second and third quarter alam mo wala ‘yang pera, sabi ko hangin lang ‘yan. Kinukuha natin ang projects this year, kalimutan mo muna,” he said during the televised address with his Cabinet.

He once again floated the possibility of selling state assets, specifically the Cultural Center of the Philippines, as a last resort to beef up the funding.

“We are making sure that if the funds are not sufficient, they will have to borrow. Then if the borrowed money isn’t enough, then we have to sell the assets. Lahat ng lupa ipagbili ko para itulong ko sa tao (I will sell all the land to help the people),” he said.