THE GOVERNMENT is not borrowing as heavily as Congress would like it to because of the need to keep resources in reserve for a long pandemic, the Presidential Spokesperson Herminio L. Roque, Jr. said.

Mr. Roque, speaking to ABS-CBN News Channel (ANC), said: “We are not following the footsteps of our neighboring countries such as Malaysia, which has borrowed heavily, because we want the flexibility to have the money when we actually need it.”

The Bureau of the Treasury (BTr) estimates the 2020 debt stock to have risen 26.7% to P9.8 trillion due to “higher funding requirements to respond to the pandemic.”

Month-on-month, the BTr said the debt stock at the close of the year fell 3.3% from its level at the end of November due to net redemptions of domestic loans. This brought the debt-to-gross domestic product ratio to 54.5% last year, from a record low of 39.6% in 2019.

“We are not actually borrowing as much as Congress would want to because we want to ensure that there will be funds to borrow in case we need it,” Mr. Roque said.

He said the Finance department wants the country to remain in the middle “as far as borrowing is concerned.”

The first two stimulus packages were initially much larger when proposed, with the final amounts whittled down after economic managers recommended moderation in enacting spending packages.

The third stimulus package has since been proposed by Speaker Lord Allan Q. Velasco and Marikina Representative Stella Luz A. Quimbo, via House Bill No. 8031 or the proposed Bayanihan to Arise as One Act. It would be the third in a series of Bayanihan economic packages and is referred to informally as Bayanihan III. Mr. Velasco said the third package is backed by most members of the House of Representatives, across all parties.

The bill provides for a fresh round of stimulus measures worth P420 billion, which if passed would be the largest economic package by far. The spending items include P108 billion for cash assistance to families affected by the pandemic, P100 billion for establishments in critically-impacted industries, P70 billion for workers in the agriculture sector, and P52 billion for small businesses.

“We are not sure if we should implement it yet because 25% of Bayanihan II has still to be spent and we have trillions of pesos in stimulus (measures) already embedded in the 2021 budget,” Mr. Roque said.

Congress earlier passed a law extending the validity of Republic Act No. 11494 or the Bayanihan to Recover as One Act (Bayanihan II), which provided P165.5 billion for measures to boost the country’s pandemic response.

The P4.5-trillion national budget for this year sets aside at least P1.1 trillion for infrastructure, the government’s preferred delivery mechanism for economic stimulus.

Senator Grace S. Poe-Llamanzares said Congress should be given a “proper accounting of what was spent in Bayanihan II” before it legislates a third stimulus.

“I agree with any initiative that will help our people reeling from this pandemic. However, let us consider the following things: Bayanihan II was extended; therefore, we still need to get proper accounting of what was spent in Bayanihan II — if there are any savings or deficit.” she told the ANC.

“Where are we exactly going to source the funding for this? I would like to know where we will be able to source the funds… because a lot (of the spending items)… even in Bayanihan II, were from unprogrammed funds. How are you going to source it? Where are we going to spend it?”

Bayanihan II called for up to P165 billion in spending, with P25 billion contingent on the availability of funds. — Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza