By Vanne Elaine Terrazola
It may have been dubbed by its counterpart as the “MabagalnaKapulungan (Slow Chamber),” but the Senate of the Philippines proved that it was not remiss in its job of passing well-scrutinized pieces of legislation, especially priority measures of the Duterte administration.
Senate President Vicente Sotto III even embraced the criticism as a compliment as he reported on the Upper Chamber’s achievements in a news forum last November.
As of December 6, there were 2,126 bills filed in Senate since the 17th Congress started in July 2017 – 37 of them already signed into law by President Duterte.
Of those bills, 611 have been acted upon by Senate, which are either awaiting the Chief Executives signature, already ratified or in the bicameral committee level, or passed in second or final reading.
“I have never disagreed with the statement na slower kami kasi slow but sure kami (that we are slower because we are slow but sure). Binabasanamin, pinag-aaralan namin. ‘Di kami pasa nan gpasa (We read, we study. We don’t just pass bills),” Sotto had said.
The top measure that the Senate had passed is the Bangsamoro Basic Law, which President Duterte later signed as the Organic Law for the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, or the Bangsamoro Organic Law (Republic Act No. 11054).
After tedious deliberations, which include public hearings in provinces of ARMM, especially in the war-torn Marawi City, the Senate burned the midnight oil on May 31 to approve on third and final reading the BBL. It was signed into law on July 27.
RA 11054 will establish the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) to replace the 28-year-old Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).
The BARMM would consist of the ARMM provinces Maguindanao, Lanao de Sur, Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi, and the cities of Marawi and Lamitan.
The law also provides for the inclusion of Cotabato and Isabela cities, six towns in Lanaodel Norte and 39 barangays in three towns of North Cotabato in the BARMM
Residents are scheduled to ratify the BOL in a plebescite on January 21, 2019.
Members of the Senate majority continued to adhere to the Duterte administration’s agenda as they pushed for the passage of several measures prioritized by the government.
Coconut Trust Fund
Among these was the Senate Bill 1233 that would create the Coconut Trust Fund and would facilitate the release of the P105-billion coco levy fund collected to famers during the regime of late President Ferdinand Marcos.
Aside from the annual distribution of the coco levy fund, the bill also provides for the yearly allocation of P10 billion to the Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA) to augment assistance for farmers.
The Upper Chamber has also heeded the President’s call to liberalize rice importation to lower the prices of rice.
The Senate ratified late last month the final version of the bill that would lift the quantitative restriction on rice imports and impose tariffs instead.
A highlight of the Senate’s rice tarrification bill was the creation of the annual Rice Competitiveness Enhancement Fund (RCEF) of at least P10 billion for the development of the local rice industry.
The three bills, all sponsored by Sen. Cynthia Villar, now await the President’s signature.
The Senate recently adopted and ratified the landmark bill that would establish a universal health care (UHC) program that would guarantee equal access to quality and affordable health services for all Filipinos.
Also a certified measure, the measure was already transmitted for the President to sign. Sen. Joseph Victor Ejercito is the sponsor of the bill.
The measure mandates that its fund will be sourced from the annual allocation of the Department of Health and the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (PhilHealth); as well as shares from the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation (PAGCOR), the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office’s (PCSO), and the incremental sin tax collection under Republic Act 10351.
Fund for victims of Dengvaxia
Albeit later than its counterpart, the Chamber also managed to approve the resolution providing for the P1.16-billion supplemental budget for the victims of the controversial Dengvaxia vaccine for dengue. The measure was sponsored by Sen. Loren Legarda, who chairs the Senate’s finance committee.
Also in March, senators approved the landmark measure setting up a Philippine Identification System (PhilSys), which was signed into law last August.
The measure, sponsored by Senator Panfilo Lacson, seeks to harmonize and integrate some 33 government ID cards into a single ID system.
The proposed Tax Amnesty Act is likewise close to becoming a law after its ratification in the Senate, as well as in the House of Representatives.
The bill would grant an amnesty on all unpaid internal revenue taxes, including estate taxes, general taxes and delinquent accounts, due for 2017 and the previous years.
Sen. Sonny Angara, chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said the measure will encourage those in the formal and non-formal sector to legitimize, properly declare and pay the correct taxes without fear of civil, criminal or administrative penalties.
Taking their time
Despite their support to the President’s legislative agenda, majority senators’ were one with the opposition that some measures should not be rushed.
On December 13, the Senate adjourned its sessions and decided to defer the approval of the P3.757-trillion proposed 2019 national budget, despite the Malacañang’s appeal to pass it within the year.
Contrary to their counterpart, the Senate also refused to railroad the proposed shift to a federal system of government.
Majority and minority senators, in a caucus last July, have agreed to go slow on federalism while they await the findings of the hearings being conducted by the Senate Committee on Constitutional Amendments and Revision of Codes.
Many of the senators have also expressed reservations about revising the 1987 Constitution as they believe that the more pressing issues should be addressed first. Sotto had said that “none” of his colleagues included Charter change in their priority bills.
Aside from federalism, senators were also cold to the second package of the government’s tax reform program.
Unlike the Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion (TRAIN), there was lack of support in the Upper Chamber for the proposed Tax Reform for Attracting Better and High-quality Opportunities (TRABAHO). The bill, on the other hand, breezed through the scrutiny of the House of Representatives which approved it on third and final reading last September.
The TRABAHO bill, better known as TRAIN 2, seeks the reduction of corporate income tax but at the same time the removal of incentives currently enjoyed by investors and business sectors.
The Senate Committee on Ways and Means, chaired by Sen. Sonny Angara, earlier decided to suspend its deliberation of the TRABAHO bill while economic managers and the Labor department study the impact of the measure on employment. Senators are proposing other measures as a replacement for the TRABAHO bill, such as the lowering of value-added tax imposed on goods and services.
The Senate is yet to pass the measure against practice of contractualization, which PresidnetDuterte had also promised to end.
Nonetheless, the Chamber did not miss in protecting and improving the welfare of workers through landmark measures.
President Duterte in August signed the Republic Act No. 11058 which strengthens the compliance of employers with occupational safety and health standards (OSHS) and penalizes its violations.
Senator Joel Villanueva, chair of the Senate Committee on Labor Employment, and Human Resources Development, said the measure will prevent workplace injuries or deaths, work-related disorders, and “ensure that workplace health and safety is everyone’s responsibility.”
The bill that would allow employees to telecommute, or work from home, meanwhile, awaits the President’s signature.