Senate eyes Charter change that amends economic provisions

January 16, 2018 at 17:00

Senate eyes Charter change that amends economic provisions

Long-envisioned but always sidelined amendments to the economic provisions of the 1987 Constitution—seen as too restrictive as to hinder the country’s global competitiveness and ability to invite investments—may finally push through as a result of the imperative to change the Charter to transition to federalism.

However, Senate leaders served notice this early they will not railroad early passage of bills that will pave the way for proposed Charter changes to be enacted into law, ever mindful of the Senate’s fewer number of legislators compared to the House of Representatives.

“No fast-tracking,” Senate President Aquilino L. Pimentel III, told the BusinessMirror last Sunday. “But we will work harder and faster, the best we can.”

That same cautionary stance was made clear by Majority Leader Vicente C. Sotto III, who balked at suggestions from some quarters to fast-track efforts to tinker with the Charter through a constituent assembly. Asked if the Senate, dominated by Duterte administration allies, will rush approval of pending Charter change legislation, Sotto allayed fears the enabling measure will be railroaded.

“Not really, we will follow the regular approach,” Sotto said in a text message to the BusinessMirror, even as he left the door open that the Cha-cha proposal “can be listed as a priority.”

Brushing off criticism raised earlier by Speaker Pantaleon D. Alvarez, who chided the senators as the “slow Senate,” Sotto said when it comes to workload sharing to tackle an expectedly heavy legislative agenda on Charter changes, it was more prudent for the Senate to take its time because, “The House of Representatives has 300 members, we only have 23 [senators]. There are so many of them to share the workload. But we have only a few people, so we’re loaded.”

High on the list of priority bills lined up for early plenary consideration when the Senate resumes regular sessions this week are proposals for amending the Constitution, which allies of President Duterte have been pushing as a means for laying the groundwork for federalism.

However, it is not just the transition to federalism that is fueling Cha-cha. In the view of Sen. Panfilo M. Lacson Sr., the consideration of Cha-cha could finally accommodate calls to amend the economic provisions, possibly including the caps on foreign ownership of business in certain industries, and of land.

In a separate interview with DWIZ over the weekend, Lacson said the economic provisions alone could be changed by lifting the 40:60 restrictions on investments and ownership of land.

“If you were to ask me, I’d rather we just change those provisions as they account for why we are laggards; we are the only ones where foreigners cannot own land, which they cannot bring out of the country anyway. Those who invested cannot take them to their own country,” Lacson said.

The economic provisions of the Constitution also impose caps on ownership of utilities, media and advertising companies, among others.

Lacson said the 1987 Constitution has been “too nationalistic to a fault,” but that was understandable because “we just emerged from a dictatorship” in 1986. But the world has become smaller and smaller. We’re the only ones with no provisions for opening up to foreign investment; the investors would rather go to other countries.”

For instance, the senator cited the case of China, which was inward looking during the time of Mao Zedong, but when Deng Xiaoping came on board, “they became progressive-minded; now they’re truly open.”

Drilon open to Charter change, but….

Earlier, Senate Minority Leader Franklin M. Drilon gave assurances he will not block Cha-cha, saying he is open to it. But Drilon clarified this will depend on how soon the Senate and the House will approve their respective versions of Charter amendments.

Drilon’s partymate in the Liberal Party, Sen. Francis N. Pangilinan, has called for a hearing on Wednesday of the Senate committee on constitutional amendments, and revision of codes and laws, to tackle the Charter-change proposals.

Both Drilon and Pangilinan have opposed notions, floated by some House members, that as a result of the shift to federalism, the Cha-cha transitory provisions could include the lifting of term limits on incumbents. The Senate minority is concerned this will pave the way for indefinite rule by the Duterte administration, in much the same way that then President Ferdinand E. Marcos assumed the powers of the Executive and the Legislative as dictator without term limits.

Lacson said while the House is tackling a separate proposal, the Pangilinan committee will first tackle the resolution filed by Drilon for a constitutional convention to amend the 1987 Charter. The Minority believes that while convening an elected con-con will be more expensive, it is a much better way of picking those who will craft the amendments, and will keep out of the process incumbents who may have vested interests to cling to power.

Lacson added: “As of now, there is no resolution yet to call for a constituent assembly [Con-ass],” one of the three modes provided by the Constitution for introducing amendments.  He expects Senate President Aquilino L. Pimentel III to file a separate resolution for the two chambers to convene in joint session, but specifying that they must vote separately.

Meanwhile, besides Cha-cha, lawmakers’ agenda are filled with the next wave of tax reforms even as various quarters are still debating the real impact on most Filipinos of the Duterte administration’s Package 1 of the Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion (TRAIN), enacted into law last December.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee, chaired by Sen. Juan Edgardo M.  Angara, was earlier reported in the BusinessMirror as setting a tight deadline for itself in tackling at least three tax amnesty bills that are part of the next-wave measures.

“The committee is finalizing the tax amnesty bill for reporting out within the first two weeks of sessions,” Angara told BusinessMirror on January 7.

Following Angara’s self-imposed target, the tax amnesty measure should be ready at committee level by end-January, since sessions resume on Monday.

According to Angara, his committee will tackle in consolidated fashion not just his own bill (Senate Bill 942) but also one by Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph G. Recto (SB 920) and by Sen. Paolo Benigno S.  Aquino IV (SB 1494). SB 942, or the “Grant of tax amnesty act” was filed on August 1, 2016 by Angara, with Sen. Nancy S. Binay as coauthor.

Its long title is: “An Act enhancing revenue administration and collection by granting an amnesty on all unpaid internal revenue taxes imposed by the national government for taxable year 2015 and prior years.” Congress has passed “two-thirds of the expected revenues from Package 1 of the TRAIN,” according to the Department of Finance (DOF).

The remaining one-third involves provisions on the estate tax amnesty, a general tax amnesty, the proposed adjustments in the Motor Vehicle Users Charge, amendments to the bank secrecy law and automatic exchange of information, the DOF explained in a briefing statement.

Package 2 aims to lower corporate income taxes and modernize fiscal incentives in a bid to complement the expected incremental revenues from the first package, according to the DOF. “We are going to submit to Congress Package 2 of the CTRP [Comprehensive Tax Reform Program] in January 2018,” Finance Secretary Carlos G. Dominguez III said earlier.


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