The congressional approval of the House-passed proposal on a three-year, P1.5-trillion stimulus program anchored on infrastructure spending mainly in rural communities  will let the government  effectively implement the Balik Probinsya, Bagong Pag-Asa program  and provide quick employment to Filipinos left jobless as a result of the quarantine  measures imposed since March in Luzon and other parts of the country. 

Deputy Speaker LRay Villafuerte, one of Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano’s co-authors in House Bill (HB) 6920 on the proposed COVID-19 Unemployment Reduction Economic Stimulus (CURES) Act of 2020, said this measure focuses on shovel-ready, easy-to-implement infrastructure projects on health, education, agriculture, local roads, livelihood, information and communication technology (ICT) and tourism (HEAL IT) infrastructure.

“This CURES bill will create jobs in the countryside in the new normal.”

HB 6920, which was approved on third and final reading last week by a 210-7 vote, is the substitute bill for HB 6709, which was principally authored by Cayetano, Villafuerte and Majority Leader Ferdinand Martin Romualdez; Deputy Speakers Paolo Duterte and Loren Legarda; and Reps. Eric Yap, Lani Cayetano, Michael Defensor and Jose Antonio Sy-Alvarado. 

“This is the time to implement Balik Probinsya as a way to help kick-start the economy that has ground to a halt and to provide employment to the new jobless,” Villafuerte said.

Villafuerte issued this statement as the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) reported last week an unemployment rate in April of 17.7% , the highest in 20 years and equivalent to 7.3 million jobless Filipinos. 

The deputy speaker for finance welcomed the recent institutionalization of Balik Probinsya, which, according to the President in his Executive Order (EO) No. 114, is meant to “reverse migration to the NCR (National Capital Region) and other congested metropolises to attain rural prosperity.”

Villafuerte said the huge infrastructure projects outlined in the CURES bill shall be undertaken in conjunction with the Balik Probinsya program, which was first pushed by Sen. Bong Go before the issuance of EO 114.

Prior to EO 114, this back-to-the-provinces project was already being implemented in Camarines Sur, where the provincial government has launched  road/path walk construction programs for workers in the barangay level, food-for-work, tree-planting, and others, said Villafuerte during the recent online meeting of the social amelioration cluster of the Defeat COVID-19 Ad Hoc Committee (DCC) of the House of Representatives. 

Villafuerte, who co-chairs this DCC subpanel with Leyte Rep. Lucy Torres-Gomez, said the government should implement Balik Probinsyanationwide as soon as possible  to address the exodus of construction workers and other workers, mainly from the National Capital Region (NCR) and CALABARZON (Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Rizal, and Quezon).

For instance, Villafuerte said some 20,000  of his provincemates left jobless in Metro Manila when the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) was imposed have signified their intent to return to Camarines Sur to rebuild a new future with their families. 

The provincial government led by the deputy speaker’s son, Governor Miguel Luis Villafuerte, has started helping these stranded workers by taking them by the busloads from their NCR and CALABARZON worksites and bringing them home to Camarines Sur, where they first go through the mandatory 14-day isolation in designated quarantine facilities, are fed and given essential items like blankets, mattresses  and toiletries.

Food-for-work and other livelihood projects are then offered to these workers at the end of their quarantine periods.

“They went to Manila looking for greener pastures, looking for jobs in the absence of employment opportunities in their provinces. So what happens after the COVID crisis is they have to return home. Some people are still there (in their worksites), stranded and  hungry,” he added.

Villafuerte cited the plight of his province mate Marlon Dalipe, a construction worker who had left Camarines Sur for Metro Manila to look for better employment opportunities. Dalipe got a job in Metro Manila, but later found himself unemployed after the construction firm he was working for temporarily closed its operations because of the ECQ. 

With no money left at the start of the ECQ, Dalipe walked from Alabang in Muntinlupa City to Camarines Sur for five days straight so he could return to his family. 

“Going back to their home is not a journey of failure but a return of hope.”

Villafuerte said Camarines Sur has initiated Balik Probinsya and Food-for-Work programs, “with stranded workers in Metro Manila provided with buses so that they could return home to their families. Going back to their home is not a journey of failure but a return of hope.”

Sen. Go has said he had been told by National Housing Authority (NHA) general manager Marcelino Escalada Jr. and Mindanao Development Authority (MinDA) Secretary Emmanuel Piñol that Camarines Sur and five more provinces are ready to participate in the testing phase of this program. The other provinces are Leyte, Zamboanga del Norte, Lanao del Norte, Bukidnon and North Cotabato.

Villafuerte was the first to offer Camarines Sur as a pilot area for Balik Probinsya last April when he got in touch with Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) Secretary Ramon Lopez to offer as a possible Balik Probinsya relocation site the Camarines Sur government’s sprawling complex in the provincial capital of Pili that is just a five-minute drive from the Naga Airport.

Villafuerte said that in order to sustain the shovel-ready infrastructure projects that would generate jobs for displaced workers under the Balik Probinsiya program, both chambers of the Congress need to approve the CURES bill.

“This CURES bill will create jobs in the countryside in the new normal. People prefer jobs over dole outs, which are not sustainable,” Villafuerte explained, adding that 1.3 million workers in the construction industry are affected by the sudden suspension of infrastructure projects because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The CURES Fund would be available for a wide gamut of projects ranging from barangay health centers and municipal and city hospitals to digital equipment for testing, “tele-health” services and e-prescriptions to post-harvest facilities, bagsakan centers and food terminals, among others.

Such funds would also be available for infrastructure projects like walking or bicycle lanes; bridges across creeks and irrigation canals; evacuation centers and disaster emergency facilities; and roads going to tourist spots, beaches, mountain parks,  new business districts or economic zones,  and hubs for small and medium-sized enterprises.

Villafuerte said that under the P1.5-trillion CURES program, chosen projects should be ready for construction within 90 days after the Department of Budget and Management (DBM)  certifies actual fund release.

“With the CURES and the enhanced ‘Build Build Build’ program of President Duterte on track after COVID restrictions are lifted, the government will be able to recover and build a more resilient economy,” Villafuerte said. 

In countries that have undergone severe economic downturns, Villafuerte said similar stimulus programs were implemented to address unemployment. 

The United States drew up the Marshall Plan, a financial aid package for the benefit of European countries which were in debt and in political chaos as a result of World War II. The Plan’s goal was to expand agricultural and industrial production in European economies and stimulate international trade. 

Similar stimulus plans were implemented by the United Kingdom, Indonesia, Japan and India to energize their economies and create jobs. 

In the Philippines, among earlier stimulus programs cited by Villafuerte were Republic Act (RA) No. 1000, which authorized the President to issue bonds to finance public works and projects for economic development, and  EO 783, issued by then-President Arroyo to provide employment interventions to save and create jobs, as part of her administration’s Economic Resiliency Plan in response to the global recession in the late 2000s.

Villafuerte said  their proposed CURES Act  aims to gear state infrastructure spending “towards maximizing the direct and indirect creation and preservation of jobs, particularly in the rural countryside,” and down to the most basic political structure, which is the barangay.

With this in mind, HB 6709 seeks to create, appropriate and automatically release a special outlay dubbed the CURES Fund  equivalent to P1.5 trillion over a three-year period to bankroll infrastructure projects in the HEAL priority areas, he said.

Given that infrastructure is the backbone of any economy, he said that “although palliative measures such as cash transfers, unemployment dole-outs, relief and other forms of immediate support are undoubtedly necessary at the moment, it is in the interest of both the government, the private sector, and the Filipino people at large that a lasting cure for economic resilience be established.”

As proposed in HB 6920, an initial P500 billion of this CURES Fund shall be released on the first year of this 2020-2022 economic stimulus and employment program, with P500 billion more for release on the second year, and the remaining P500 billion on the third and final year.

Funding for HEAL IT projects shall be based on the (1) actual need of chosen localities, (2) number of locally-sourced jobs to be created or sustained after the construction work, (3) and the potentials for forward and backward linkages with local businesses, suppliers and traders, small and medium-sized enterprises, and skilled and unskilled workforces.  

HB 6920 states that for projects to be eligible for CURES funding, they  must be found in areas that have: (1)  low per-capita income or below  the poverty-line threshold, (2) high unemployment rates above the national average, and (3) whose joblessness and inflation rates have increased while investments and tourist arrivals have declined because of COVID-19-related factors.


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