CONGRESS was asked to hold a special session this week to prevent a delay in the approval of the 2021 national budget. In letters dated Oct. 9, or four days after Congress suspended its session, President Rodrigo Duterte reminded both houses that the approval of the budget was an urgent matter.
No less urgent but much less discussed is the deadline for local government executives to submit their budget proposals to their local legislative bodies, meaning the City or Municipal Councils and the Provincial Boards. Each year, the deadline for submission is typically Oct. 15 or 16.
Unless that deadline has been moved, this means our provinces, cities, and towns had less time this year to think about the annual investment plan (AIP) for 2021. Discussions on the AIP usually start in May. This year, though, many cities and provinces were under enhanced community quarantine during that month and were scrambling to improve their responses to Covid-19. Who had the time or the clarity to start planning what their local government would invest in next year?
So, as intriguing as the Lower House intramurals may be, there are bigger questions to ask about next year’s budgets, both national and local.
One of the silver linings of 2020 has been the opportunity to get a closer look at how our local governments operate. Before the pandemic, the most direct interactions we had with government services were the twice-weekly (or in some communities, weekly) visits garbage collectors made. If we didn’t have business permits to renew, our annual visit to pay real property taxes was the only time we transacted directly with someone in our city or town.
This year, some local officials took risks to protect their communities during the pandemic. We had a chance to see who had empathy, and who translated that effectively and efficiently into useful actions. Some of them endured ridicule over the way they responded, whether it was in the way quarantine passes got distributed or the way contact-tracing got done. Most of them got better and learned to make better decisions.
This week, most of the attention around the budget will be directed at Congress. But our local officials are the ones doing the heavy lifting.
Among their challenges will be figuring out how much to set aside for supporting frontline workers and providing additional basic services and safety nets for communities hurting the most from Covid-19. When it comes to deciding what to do about this pandemic, our local governments are practically on their own.
The National Economic and Development Authority has advised that in preparing the 2021 budget, the foremost priority should be “health systems improvement to strengthen the country’s capacity to address the pandemic, including the purchase of vaccines.”
Yet the proposed national budget for 2021 doesn’t appear to match that advice.
In September, CNN Philippines quoted Health Undersecretary Myrna Cabotaje as saying that the Department of Health had asked for P12.9 billion to buy vaccines, once a safe and effective one has been approved.
How much made it to the national budget that the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) eventually proposed? About P2.5 billion or just under 20 percent of what health authorities had asked for.
Will that be enough?
Assuming that each person will need three doses of the vaccine, P2.5 billion will pay for enough doses for 4.3 million persons, based on the low end of the estimated price of a vaccine (around US$4). At the high end of the price estimate ($37 per dose), that budget will cover only enough vaccines for around 466,000 persons.
Budgeting an amount to acquire vaccines is just one of many competing priorities next year’s budget will need to cover. There’s also the need to improve health facilities, accredit more laboratories, provide more support for health care workers, and buoy up local economies, to name just a few.
Given all that, is this really the time for some of our congressional leaders to indulge in their power play antics?