(File photo)

MANILA – Grace Poe on Thursday commended the Commission on Elections (Comelec) on Thursday for allowing the Land Transportation and Franchising Regulatory Board (LTFRB) to continue its distribution of fuel subsidy for Public Utility Vehicle (PUV) drivers and operators.

Poe said the move is a timely response by the Comelec as she suggested a digital payment to hasten the distribution of fuel subsidy.

"We urge the government to speed up efforts on the use of digital payments through financial service providers like e-wallets for a more efficient aid distribution during a crisis. Help is most effective when it reaches our people in their time of need," she said in a statement.

On Wednesday, Poe along with Senator Panfilo Lacson questioned the interruption of the government's fuel subsidy distribution due to Comelec Resolution No. 10747 prohibiting the release, disbursement, or expenditures of public funds during campaign period for the May 9 elections.

Lacson said he cannot see how the government's fuel subsidy can be construed as vote-buying.

"We cannot tell our people to hold on for relief until the elections are over. Hunger simply cannot wait," Poe, for her part, said.

‘Devoid of politics’

At the House of Representatives, Deputy Speaker Rufus Rodriguez also welcomed the Comelec’s decision to allow the distribution of PHP6,500 fuel subsidy to PUV drivers amid an election spending ban.

He said the release of subsidies should not be considered as election campaign spending and should not be used for politics.

“It is a government agency that is giving the money to PUV drivers. The LTFRB should not allow any politician to meddle or be associated with the distribution. The process should be devoid of politics,” he said.

Citing LTFRB data as of April 5 when the distribution was stopped, Rodriguez said only 110,200 out of the over 377,000 beneficiaries have received their fuel subsidies.

Rodriguez said many of his constituents in Cagayan de Oro City and Northern Mindanao still have to be given their financial assistance.

“The Comelec should not wait for more increases in the pump prices of diesel, gasoline and other oil products before approving LTFRB’s application for an exemption from the spending ban,” he said.

He said such spikes would effectively decrease the value of the financial assistance that PUV drivers would receive.

Funding sources

House ways and means committee chair Joey Salceda, meanwhile, said the low-income household subsidy is definitely pushing through, adding that the executive department has found some funding sources in the form of unused cash balances.

"You will have to check with them for the exact items used, but if I am not mistaken, it will be from past budgets. President Duterte also followed up with an instruction to increase the monthly subsidy from PHP200 to PHP500. I am quite positive that we will start distributing those subsidies before the elections," he said.

As for the Pantawid programs, Salceda said it has to push through considering that the purpose of the Pantawid Pasada is not to provide household relief, as in the case of the household subsidy, but to relieve the pressure off PUVs, so that they do not raise fares.

"So, it's more of a prevention of second-round effects on prices. That said, we will continue to follow up with implementing agencies when there are delays in the implementation," he said.

He said his only reservation with targeted programs such as these has been the long duration it takes to fully implement these compared with outright exemptions or universal cash transfers.

"But, as this is the direction the executive has decided to take, we will provide policy support or appropriations support as needed," he said.

Earlier, the LTFRB halted its fuel subsidy program after the Comelec’s spending ban took effect last March 25 which would run until May 8.

The government allotted PHP2.5 billion for fuel subsidy which is set to benefit 377,000 public utility vehicle (PUV) operators and drivers amid the increasing prices of fuel.

The LTFRB will resume its fuel subsidy distribution after the Comelec on Wednesday announced that it has exempted the board from the cash disbursement ban due to the May elections.

“They could implement (the fuel subsidy program) immediately but they have to wait for our resolution. The announcement is not the resolution. They have to wait for our resolution because the resolution will contain the conditions,” Comelec Commissioner George Garcia in a press briefing said.

Garcia said the poll body is expected to release the resolution on Thursday or Friday. (PNA)