Senate to prioritize Bayanihan 2, COVID-19 response bills when session reopens

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, July 25) — Senators plan to pass on third and final reading the second version of the Bayanihan Law a day after President Rodrigo Duterte’s State of the Nation Address on July 27, Senate President Vicente "Tito" Sotto III said.

Malacañang said Duterte is set certify as urgent the "Bayanihan To Recover As One Act" to speed up the country's recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. The previous Bayanihan To Heal As One Law that gave the President powers to reallocate or realign funds amounting to P275 billion to address the COVID-19 health crisis lapsed last month.

The bill also known as "Bayanihan 2" aims to allocate another P140 billion for various programs needed to address the health emergency.

The Senate failed to pass the second Bayanihan bill before it went on break in June after Malacañang refused to certify it as urgent.

Senators said the Palace cited financial issues. Sotto earlier said the Department of Finance submitted to the Senate its own version of the bill in June and proposed amendments to the Senate’s version in July. However, Sotto said senators are standing by its version for now.

“Doon sa Bayanihan 2, do not expect that the original proposal of the Executive Department noong bago namin ipasa on second reading, ay maa-accommodate. Hindi na siguro. We will just allow Bayanihan 2 to stand as it is with some minor amendments,” he said.

“As far as the DOF is concerned, P130 billion yung sa proposal nila. Kaya lang meron kaming mga nakita na talagang mahigpit na pangangailangan as far as the Committee on Finance is concerned. And that is the reason why we were pegging it at P140 billion,” Sotto explained.

[Translation: On the Bayanihan 2, do not expect for the original proposal of the Executive Department to be tackled. We will just allow Bayanihan 2 to stand as it is with some minor amendments. The DOF's' proposal was P130 billion, but the Senate Committee on Finance saw some items that need to be prioritized so we pegged it at P140 billion.]

The Senate President explained lawmakers will just incorporate DOF’s amendments to the other proposed economic measures, which the Executive Department earlier submitted to the Senate.

Once both houses of Congress have passed the "Bayanihan To Recover As One," Sotto said lawmakers are expected to hold a bicameral conference committee meeting, with the Executive Department present, to harmonize conflicting provisions in the House and Senate versions of the bills.

At that point, Sotto said, the Senate may be willing to accept amendments.

Medical scholarship bill and other legislative priorities

Sotto said another legislative priority of the Senate is the passage of the Medical Scholarship Act, which seeks to grant full scholarships to eligible medical students to address the shortage of doctors in the Philippines.

Senate Labor Committee Chairman Joel Villanueva said the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed how much the country lacks doctors and other healthcare workers. He explained that a 2017 report by the World Health Organization shows that there are only 40,775 doctors in the Philippines.

“This is equivalent to 3.9 doctors per 10,000 Filipinos. This is very far from the ideal ratio of 10 doctors for every 10,000 population,” Villanueva said. “Based on our calculation, to fill this gap, we need an additional 66,350 doctors in the country."

The Senate also hopes to finish the plenary discussion on the Corporate Recovery and Tax Incentives for Enterprises Act or CREATE, which aims to reduce corporate tax rates and rationalize fiscal incentives.

Sotto said senators will also complete discussions on the Expanded Solo Parents Act. It aims to provide more privileges to solo parents such as discounts on certain products and services, and the bill creating the Coconut Farmers’ Industry or the COCO Levy Fund.

The bill creating the Department of Disaster Resilience is another Senate priority. The measure seeks to create an empowered and highly specialized agency primarily responsible for ensuring safe, adaptive, and disaster-resilient communities.

The Senate will also take up the bill amending the Public Services Act that seeks to open the telecommunications and transport sectors to foreign ownership. The 1987 Constitution provides that 60-percent of public utilities must be Filipino-owned.

Sotto said he also has personal priority bills he wants to push this second regular session.

Among them is the anti-fake news bill, which seeks to punish persons who knowingly create or publish false information to mislead the public. The proposed penalties include imprisonment and/or a fine of not more than P300,000.