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Executive branch may not certify economic reform bills as urgent

By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza

THE ADMINISTRATION is focused on delivering the needed fiscal boost for the economic recovery and may not certify as urgent a number of economic reform bills pending in Congress, the President’s spokesman Herminio L. Roque said.

At a televised briefing, Mr. Roque said the reform bills that are not on the legislative agenda include amendments to the Public Service Act, Foreign Investments Act, and Retail Trade Liberalization Act, all currently pending at the Senate.

Ang alam ko po, hindi kasama iyan sa legislative agenda ng ating gobyerno. Kada cabinet meeting po may report si PLLO Secretary kung iyon status ng mga bills na sa mula’t-mula ay sinusulong ng ating gobyerno (I understand that these bills are not on the government’s legislative agenda. At every cabinet meeting the Presidential Legislative Liaison Office Secretary reports the status of the bills being pushed by the government),” he said in response to a question on the reform bills.

Ang ating recovery po ay nakasalalay iyan doon sa pagpapatupad ng ating pantaunang budget sa 2021, doon sa pagpapatupad ng Bayanihan II na in-extend pa po natin (The economic recovery depends on how we implement the 2021 budget and also on the Bayanihan II stimulus package, which we have extended),” he added.

Bayanihan II is more formally known as the Bayanihan to Recover as One Act or Republic Act (RA) No. 11494, signed in September. It was the second stimulus package enacted during the pandemic, and its funding was originally valid until December. RA 11519, signed in late December, extended the validity of Bayanihan II funding to mid-2021. Meanwhile RA 11520 extended the validity of the 2020 budget to the end of this year.

Asked to comment, Senate President Vicente C. Sotto III told BusinessWorld via Viber Monday that the chamber will continue to legislate the bills in the normal course of business, even without a Palace certification.

“If the economic bills are brought forth in plenary then we will tackle it. Congress is not confined to what the Executive certifies as priority,” Mr. Sotto said.

The Senate lists the amendments to the Retail Trade Liberalization Act, or Republic Act No. 8762, and to the Public Service Act or Commonwealth Act No. 146 among its own priority bills.

According to the government’s economic managers, the P1.1 trillion earmarked for infrastructure projects under this year’s spending plan will have a multiplier effect benefiting various sectors hit hard by the pandemic. The economy is expected to grow this year after a contraction of 10% in the first nine months of 2020.

Senator Aquilino L. Pimentel III, chairman of the Senate Committee on Trade, Commerce and Entrepreneurship, said the panel “will still proceed with the processing of the Retail Trade Liberalization Act.” The move “may in fact attract investment and create jobs,” he told BusinessWorld via Viber.

“What we are doing is changing the framework law and liberalize entry into our retail market. Whether foreigners will invest in that sector is still to be seen.”

Mr. Pimentel urged legislators to focus on the economic reform bills instead of pushing for Constitutional amendments, citing the limited time available to amend the Charter before national elections on May 9, 2022.

“No more time (to amend the Constitution). And not timely. Better focus on the achievable measures to help the poorest segments of our society,” he said.  “Let’s make charter change an election issue. Candidates in the 2022 elections must be asked their position on the specifics of the various proposed charter amendments.”

Sen. Grace Poe-Llamanzares, who chairs the Senate’s Public Services committee, said in a message that “The (Public Service Act) will continue to be finetuned by the Committee but its passage will be a collegial decision by the entire Senate.”

A University of the Philippines political science professor, Maria Ela L. Atienza, said key economic bills usually take a back seat at the Senate because the chamber is “of national” significance, and senators may be considering their chances in the next elections.

“Of course, senators are elected nationally. The senators are of course weighing their prospects on these issues because some of them are running for higher positions or seeking re-election on a national level,” Ms. Atienza told BusinessWorld by telephone Monday.

“Senators are keen (that) their actions avoid public scrutiny when they seek re-election,” she added. “These economic measures will further open up our economy, they will allow more foreign enterprises to come in. And that is monitored on a national level.”

Ms. Atienza also said senators are reluctant to attend to Constitutional amendments because “they don’t want to be seen as focusing on other matters in the midst of the pandemic.”

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