TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan’s powerful lower house of parliament is expected to pass on Tuesday this year’s third extra budget despite criticism it focuses too much on a government tourism campaign, rather than address imminent medical needs as COVID-19 infections spike.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga rebuffed calls from opposition parties to rejig the 19-trillion-yen ($183 billion) extra budget, which was compiled before the government declared a state of emergency in January to contain a resurgence in the virus.
Based on the assumption back then that infection numbers will subside, 60% of the spending was earmarked for promoting a ‘green’ and digitalised economy as well as funding to extend a government campaign to promote domestic travel until June.
A spike in infections, however, forced Suga to shelve the travel campaign late December, drawing criticism from opposition parties that the extra budget has become irrelevant.
Another 16% of the third extra budget was set aside for infrastructure spending, leaving just 23% for preparation of vaccine roll-outs and aid to medical institutions under strain from rising number of patients.
“We began the travel campaign last year because regional economies were struggling to stay on their own feet,” Suga told the lower house budget committee, defending the move as helping create 460,000 jobs.
“We’d like to decide what to do from now on while monitoring the situation regarding coronavirus infections,” he said.
Japan’s largest opposition has called for taking 6 trillion yen out from the extra budget, and redirecting the money to more imminent medical needs – a request Suga turned down.
Approval of the budget by the lower house, which is expected later on Tuesday, will secure its enactment as the upper house does not have the legal power to reject a budget bill passed in the more powerful lower chamber.
Any revision to the budget bill would have been a setback for Suga, who is already facing slumping poll ratings on disapproval over his handling of the pandemic.
The huge cost of dealing with the pandemic adds to Japan’s already huge public debt which, at twice the size of its $5 trillion economy, is the largest among major economies.
(Reporting by Tetsushi Kajimoto; Editing by Leika Kihara & Shri Navaratnam)