House panel OKs ₱1.3-trilion stimulus package, 2 other COVID-19 bills

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, May 26) — The House of Representatives' Defeat COVID-19 Ad Hoc Committee approved on Tuesday three pending measures to aid the government's response to the COVID-19 crisis, including a ₱1.3-trillion economic stimulus package intended for those affected by the pandemic.

The special House panel approved during its virtual meeting the Philippine Economic Stimulus Act or PESA, the Financial Institutions Strategic Transfer or FIST Act, and the Anti-Discrimination Bill, based on the committee reports of the Committee on Banks and Financial Intermediaries, the Economic Stimulus Response Package Subcommittee, and the Peace and Order Subcommittee. The three measures will be tabled for plenary discussion later in the day.

Under the proposed PESA, a ₱568-billion package for 2020 is intended for the immediate employment protection stimulus for affected workers; massive testing through local government units and agencies; loans for micro, small, and medium enterprises; and assistance to critically impacted industries, among others.

For the first phase, ₱110 billion will go to wage subsidies, ₱30 billion to the emergency employment program, and ₱15 billion to assist students affected by the pandemic.

In a later House plenary session, Marikina Rep. and co-chair of the House panel’s economic stimulus cluster Stella Quimbo also said they have yet to define “massive testing,” but expressed intention to include even asymptomatic individuals or those who do not exhibit COVID-19 symptoms.

“We would want the testing to go beyond the symptomatics,” she said. “The rationale for that is we want to increase confidence among our workers. That’s the only way by which they can confidently and happily go back to work.”

The Health department earlier advised against testing asymptomatic persons due to the current health system capacity and limited resources of the country.

For 2021, ₱80 billion will be allocated to the government's general intervention, while a ₱650-billion budget for the "Build, Build, Build" program to be spread over three years will cover infrastructure projects supporting universal health care, education, and food security.

The economic stimulus measure, previously approved by the House panel's economic stimulus cluster co-chaired by Albay Rep. Joey Salceda, Marikina Rep. Stella Quimbo, and AAMBIS-OWA Party-list Rep. Sharon Garin, will also assist sectors in tourism, transportation, industry and service, and agri-fishery, among others.

"The budget is substantial but this can be rationalized by our economists. This is why we need such a big amount in order for the economy to recover from ₱2 to ₱3 trillion worth of losses that we've had because of COVID-19," Garin said.

Quimbo added that they are looking into proceeds from bonds and loans as a possible source of funding for PESA’s budgetary requirements. Savings from halted government activities due to the pandemic have also been identified as a source of funds.

Meanwhile, the FIST Act pushed by Quirino Rep. Junie Cua as a substitute to the proposed House Bill 6622 -- also known as the Philippine Banking Industry Resiliency Act -- seeks to help banks and other financial institutions recover from the impact of COVID-19 by letting them offload their non-performing assets or NPAs and assist them in bad debt resolution.

The proposed measure encourages financial institutions to sell their NPAs to asset management companies, through the enactment of the Financial Institutions Strategic Transfer Corp. that specializes in resolution of distressed assets.

The committee also approved the substitute measure to House Bill 6676 or the COVID-19 Related Anti-Discrimination Act which prohibits discrimination against frontliners, returning overseas Filipino workers, and persons who are declared, confirmed, suspected, probable, and recovered cases of COVID-19.

Violators of the measure will be fined ₱50,000 to ₱500,000 or spend up to five years in jail upon discretion of the court.

“These measures are not the panacea to all our problems. But these pieces of legislation may be considered as the next step in our calibrated response to ease the suffering of our people,” said House Majority Leader Martin Romualdez, co-chair of the committee.

₱1.5-T infra spending bill gets House subcommittee nod

Meanwhile, the Defeat COVID-19 Committee's Social Amelioration Cluster approved House Bill 6709, a ₱1.5-trillion infrastructure spending measure which seeks to cushion the impact of the pandemic.

The measure — also known as the COVID-19 Unemployment Reduction Economic Stimulus Act — is aimed at “maximizing the direct and indirect creation and sustaining of jobs particularly in the Philippine rural countryside” through infrastructure projects, with ₱500 billion to be released for three years.

It will cover infrastructure projects under the areas of health, education, agriculture, local roads and livelihood and will lay the groundwork for the implementation of urban decongestion policies as part of the government's "Balik Probinsya" program.

The bill still needs the approval of the Defeat Covid-19 Committee before it can be be tackled in the plenary.

The Philippines has recorded over 14,000 COVID-19 cases to date, with more than 3,000 recoveries, and over 800 deaths.