Amid efforts by congressional leaders to fast-track the bicameral conference committee (bicam) deliberations on next year’s  proposed P5.26-trillion General Appropriations Act (GAA), CamSur Rep. LRay Villafuerte is hoping this budget panel would be able to realign outlays for certain state offices and programs to bankroll, among others, the Libreng Sakay free bus and train rides in Metro Manila along with the higher pension for indigent senior citizens in 2023.

Villafuerte issued this statement this week as Speaker Martin  Romualdez  expressed confidence over the weekend that the Senate contingent to the 2023 budget bicam panel would support the House-proposed P77 billion-worth of amendments to augment next year’s GAA plan for transportation, safety nets, education, health and other social services.

The free rides for all commuters at the EDSA Busway and for students at LRT-2 are both out next year, in the absence of specific outlays for these twin projects in the NEP (National Expenditure Program) for 2023 that the DBM (Department of Budget and Management) submitted earlier to the Congress.

“As the bicam panel has started working on a consolidated GAA bill for 2023, I am keeping my fingers crossed that its members could scour for  available funds in the proposed budget plan that would be enough for the DOTr (Department of Transportation) to stick next year not only with Libreng Sakay for commuters at the EDSA Busway but also with Libreng Sakay for students at LRT-2 (Light Rail Transit Line 2),” Villafuerte said.

“The government needs to sustain its free rides at the EDSA Carousel and also at LRT-2 for students next year, especially with the ever-increasing cost of living and when our schools have started switching to in-person classes from the virtual learning modes at the height of Covid-19,” he said.

“I am hoping likewise that at the end of the bicam talks, there would be realigned funds, too, for the government to double next year the monthly pension of some 4 million indigent elderly Filipinos from P500 to P1000, as provided for in a new law,” added Villafuerte, who is president of the National Unity Party (NUP).

“The bicam panel can hopefully winnow out in the 2023 budget plan the items for specific programs or projects whose outlays can be slashed, if not taken out completely, and realign such outlays for essentials like Libreng Sakay for the EDSA Busway  and LRT-2 for Metro Manila commuters and students and the doubling of the monthly subsidy for our senior citizens,” he said.

In a weekend statement, Romualdez said he was “confident that the Senate and the House bicam members will see eye-to-eye on this (proposed GAA amendments). Our objectives are the same: to pass a people’s budget that reflects President Marcos Jr.’s 8-point economic agenda that will help the country bounce back from the pandemic.”

Such institutional amendments by the House in the proposed 2023 GAA are for “ayuda” programs that will directly benefit the people, including P5 billion for the upgrade of the  senior citizens’ pension through the National Commission of Senior Citizens (NCSC) and P2 billion for the DOTr’s  Libreng Sakay program.

The free rides for all commuters at the EDSA Busway and for students at LRT-2 are both out next year, in the absence of specific outlays for these twin projects in the NEP (National Expenditure Program) for 2023 that the DBM (Department of Budget and Management) submitted earlier to the Congress, Villafuerte said.

The NEP, which the DBM submits to lawmakers annually at the start of the  Congress’ regular legislative session, serves as the basis for the GAA or national budget bill that these legislators subsequently write for the following fiscal year and then submit for the President’s approval and enactment into law.  

The members of the bicam panel on the proposed 2023 national budget met at the Manila Polo Club in Makati City last Friday (Nov. 25) to begin hammering out a final version of the 2023 GAA, in the hope of wrapping up their work before the Congress goes on its Christmas recess beginning Dec. 17 and for President Marcos to sign it into law on or before Dec. 31.

The national government would have to operate on a reenacted 2022 budget at the start of January next year should lawmakers fail to submit an enrolled GAA bill before they go on their yearend break.  

Villafuerte appealed to the bicam members to exert their “optimum effort” in looking for enough funds to enable the Marcos administration to possibly carry out fully beginning next year a new amendatory law—Republic Act or RA 11916—that doubled to P1,000 the monthly social pension of  indigent elderly Filipinos.

Around 25,000 to 30,000 students supposedly benefited daily from the free train rides. This program has reportedly provided 1.6 million free rides during its three-month run on the Marcos administration.

“I am  asking  bicam members to  apply their optimum effort in realigning certain funds for 2023 to bankroll the increase in the monthly pension of over 4 million senior citizens from the current P500 to the adjusted amount of P1,000 as set by RA 11916,” Villafuerte said.

A co-author of RA 11916 that mandates the pension hike plus other additional benefits and privileges for  the elderly, Villafuerte said, “It will be too bad if RA 11916, which Malacañang has allowed to lapse into law, will end up being a great but  unfunded program even if indigent senior Filipinos are among the sectors in dire need of state subsidies to help them cope with the continuously soaring prices of commodities  and palliate the economic scarring caused by Covid-19.”  

RA 11916 amended RA 7432 that provided for a universal social pension for  elderly Filipinos  and RA 9994 that granted additional benefits and privileges to senior citizens.

As for  Libreng Sakay, this project was launched in November 2020 as authorized by the Bayanihan to Recover as One Act (Bayanihan 2) law, a stimulus package designed  in part to extend financial aid to Covid-struck sectors and help the economy recover quickly from the pandemic.

Villafuerte was the lead author in the House of RA 11494 (Bayanihan 2 law) and RA 11469 (Bayanihan 1 law).

Villafuerte earlier lauded the Marcos administration for sustaining Libreng Sakay at EDSA till end-December, “for the benefit of ordinary commuters in Metro Manila who are reeling from the double whammy of the continuous economic shock triggered by the still lingering pandemic and the elevated inflation resulting from the incessant spiralling of food and petroleum prices.” 

Villafuerte said the Congress needs to allocate funds for the transport subsidies, considering that of the P206.50 billion that the Marcos administration has set aside for subsidies and cash support or “ayuda” for 2023, only P2.5 billion is earmarked for transportation, and this amount is only for fuel subsidies for certain  sector stakeholders. 

“With the rate of commodity price hikes rising last month to its fastest pace in 8 years, it behooves the Congress  to find ways to realign funds in the 2023 budget plan in the just-started  bicam process, so the government can continue offering free bus rides in Metro Manila, more so because PSA (Philippine Statistics Authority) data show that the urban poor in the national capital are the hardest hit by the current inflation spike,” he said.

 Although the consumer price index (CPI)  soared to 7.7% in October, the urban poor in Metro Manila experienced a higher rate of 9.1% last month.

Inflation was at its highest last month for the urban poor in transportation at 18.9% and in food items at 11.2%, according to PSA data.

Villafuerte argued that continued free rides at the EDSA Busway and LRT-2 are necessary for commuters and students in the national capital, given that in its Key Indicators for Asia and the Pacific 2022 report, the Asian Development Bank (ADB)  concluded that the poorest Filipinos need continued policy intervention and support to escape poverty because Covid-19 had adversely affected their lives and livelihoods. 

Citing this ADB report, he said  poor and vulnerable Filipinos have been hardest hit by Covid-19 as the poorest 10% of our people  have suffered a 21%-drop in consumption. 

The government shells out P10 million to P12 million each day to the participating bus companies for serving about 300,000 daily passengers.

However, the daily bus ridership reportedly reached a record 404,010 0n Oct. 24, and  set the highest average monthly record of 351,531 last month since it was first implemented in 2020.

This project has reportedly provided 71 million free rides to commuters as of June.

For 2022, the government released P7 billion to the DOTr for Libreng Sakay, with an extra P1.4-billion  given in September to extend its implementation until end-December.

Separately, the LRT-2 management announced it had stopped offering free rides to students since Nov. 6 as it reported an estimated potential revenue loss of P30 million, based on the average fare of P20,  since the program started last Aug. 22.

Around 25,000 to 30,000 students supposedly benefited daily from the free train rides. This program has reportedly provided 1.6 million free rides during its three-month run on the Marcos administration.

Villafuerte said the Public Utility Vehicle (PUV) Service Contracting Program (SCP) of the DOTr for its Libreng Sakay has provided free bus rides on the EDSA Busway route from the Manila Central University (MCU)  in Caloocan City to the Parañaque Integrated Terminal Exchange (PITX) in Parañaque City.

He said there was zero outlay in the 2023 NEP that the  Palace submitted to the Congress last Aug. 22 because—according to the DBM—the SCP was just a one-time, non-recurring expenditure, and not a regular item, that was included in the 2022 GAA based solely on the initiative of the 18th Congress.

DOTr officials have said there would be no Libreng Sakay at EDSA in 2023 because the DBM did not include in the 2023 NEP that  it had submitted to lawmakers the P12 billion that the DOTr had originally asked to keep this free bus ride program going next year.

The DBM said earlier it was letting the Congress decide on the funding of Libreng Sakay. “Allow us to note further that the inclusion of the SCP in the FY 2022 GAA is Congress-introduced. Hence, we will defer to the wisdom of our honorable lawmakers the decision on whether or not to allot appropriations for the said program,” it said in a statement given to legislators.

“It is important to note that the SCP was originally implemented by the DOTr at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic to provide assistance to the road transport sector badly hit by the pandemic. This year, it was intended to mitigate the impact of the fuel surge,” the DBM explained.

In late-June, Villafuerte asked then President-elect Marcos to continue with Libreng Sakay once he assumed the presidency, and he subsequently commended the Chief Executive when one of the decisions he made on his first full day at the Palace last July 1 was to approve Transport Secretary Jaime Bautista’s recommendation to extend this free-ride initiative up to December 2022..  

Villafuerte pointed out that aside from students, workers and other commuters, Libreng Sakay benefited over 600 drivers and operators belonging to the bus consortiums—ES Transport Consortium and Mega Manila Consortium—taking part in the EDSA Busway  project.

The SCP gives financial support to participating drivers and operators in the EDSA Carousel route through performance-based payouts, which means they are paid by the LTFRB  based on how many trips they make and how many passengers they serve on a daily basis. 



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