Senators split on ban on fuel subsidy releases

THE issue of the Comelec ban on public spending covering even the badly needed fuel subsidy for public utility transportation drivers has split senators, but all are prodding the poll body to issue an exemption as soon as possible.

On Tuesday, Senator Aquilino Pimentel III waded into a brewing controversy over the Comelec ban on government granting fuel subsidy to drivers of public transport, which is seen by the Comelec as smacking of vote-buying.

Pimentel, chairman of the Senate Committee on Electoral Reforms, reminded everyone there is such a Comelec rule intended to prevent an impression  or suspicion of vote-buying.

Also on Tuesday, Senator Joel “TESDAMAN” Villanueva backed calls that fuel subsidies to PUVs be taken out of the election public spending ban list.

“The call of the hour is to step on the gas in distributing this aid, and not to step on the brakes,” Villanueva said.

The senator also said that similar distribution of fuel vouchers to farmers and fisherfolk should not be halted on account of the May 9 elections.

“This is a critical lifeline to crucial  sectors impacted by the high gas prices. So a moratorium is not only unjust, it is oppressive,” Villanueva said.

He earlier urged the government to fast-track the distribution of the P2.5-billion fuel subsidy to the transport sector, and increase the P500-million fuel subsidy program for farmers and fisherfolk. He also called for boosting the fuel subsidy for fishermen to an initial P2 billion.

He justified his call by citing studies showing fuel accounts for half of the operating cost of fishermen, “which translates to half of the retail prices of fish we see in the market.”

“Any moratorium effectively cancels any proposal from the government  to increase the budget of the program and the number of beneficiaries,” he said.

Villanueva said fuel vouchers should be treated in the same category as medicine for the sick. “Does it mean that because of an election, we stop giving medicine and treatment to the sick?” Villanueva said.

“Remember these are not tax breaks for billionaires in the millions, but trickle-down help to those who feed us, those who are bringing us to work,” he said.

Villanueva was the first senator to call for more exemptions to the election season government spending ban in order not to disrupt social services and work on critical infrastructure.

He warned that declaring a pause on critical public works construction “will drive tens of thousands of workers into temporary unemployment.”

Pimentel, however, said that for now, in the absence of a Comelec exemption, the Comelec directive stopping the fuel subsidy in the midst of the campaign for the May 9 elections should be followed.

As of now, the Land Transportation Franchising  and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) is still seeking exemption from the Comelec rule in order to continue distributing the fuel subsidy that was stopped last March 25.

Earlier, Senators Grace Poe and Francis Tolentino also asked the Comelec to fast-track an exemption, claiming the assistance to drivers and operators is direly needed amid soaring prices of petroleum followed by spiralling prices of basic commodities.

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