Sotto voce

"Idle hands are the devil’s work."

Last week the indestructible Mayor Chavit Singson, now president of the League of Municipalities of the Philippines (LMP), threw the support of the country’s 1,400-plus mayors behind a couple of Constitutional reforms being advocated by DILG: constitutionalizing the Supreme Court’s Mandanas ruling, and relaxing restrictions on foreign investment.

More predictably, Senate President Sotto last Sunday reiterated his longstanding position that there are more urgent items on the Senate’s agenda. But this time he did us the courtesy of enumerating what those items are: a second Bayanihan “Heal as One” bill, the long-pending CITIRA tax reform, and bills to provide more benefits to solo parents and (finally) reorganize the coconut levy fund.

These are important measures, to be sure. But they are neither urgent nor numerous enough to justify ignoring something as important as reforming the Supreme Law of the land.

Solo parents will cheer their bill, for one, but the Republic will neither rise nor fall over it. The coco levy fund legislation has gone through a protracted period of ups and downs; the current version claims to address issues raised by the President when he vetoed the last attempt. It’s important, but it’s focused on just one sector, at a time when the pandemic exposed the structural weakness of the entire economy and bureaucracy.

CITIRA is a wider-ranging, likewise-delayed economic reform bill intended to revive overall business activity; it deserves to be prioritized. And a second Bayanihan bill is likewise urgent, although it may need to be scaled down for fiscal prudence. Both bills must be passed urgently in the wake of the economic damage wrought by lockdown. For once, we can expect the glacially slow Senate to send them out within, say, 1-2 months. Any longer than that may be too late for the sick patient.

But after that, what does the Senate do? Shouldn’t we expect all those 24 immensely talented and hard-working individuals to keep themselves busy for our people?

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Because idle hands are the devil’s work, the honorable senators might wish to then turn their attention to those Constitutional reforms.

If they want to ignore constitutionalizing Mandanas, I can live with that. After all, it’s already a Supreme Court ruling. One problem, though, is that the ruling might precipitate a larger budget deficit because it includes in local governments’ internal revenue allocation (IRA) the fees and taxes collected by Customs. To avoid such a deficit, the Finance Department is authorized to reduce the overall IRA share. Not for the first time, two admirable public policy initiatives may end up butting heads.

To head off that impasse, Constitutional reformers are also advocating the empowerment of regional development councils (RDCs) as a first step towards federalism. If the national government agrees to transfer some of its own powers to local government through the RDCs, together with the Mandanas funds, then overall fiscal balance is maintained while preserving quality of public services.

The other reform singled out for LMP’s support—relaxing restrictions on foreign investment—ought to be a no-brainer. If anything, it’s very relevant to our pandemic problem. We need more investment to revive our enfeebled economy, more specifically in two areas of lockdown concern.

One is investment in the provinces to create the jobs that will attract, and keep, people leaving Metro Manila under Duterte’s Balik-Probinsya program. The other is investment to create more jobs for returning OFWs, estimated to number a million this year. As they flee the rest of the world, especially from host countries in the Middle East that were also hit by the current slump in oil prices, we should be creating opportunities for this pool of highly-skilled and experienced repatriate labor.

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Even before the pandemic, we were already the lowest recipient of foreign direct investment (FDI/GDP ratio) in the region. Not coincidentally, we also had the lowest-rated infrastructure among the large ASEAN countries, and were the only Asian country to fail to cut its poverty rate by half in the last 25 years.

Today the US and Japanese companies who are already fleeing China are relocating elsewhere in Asia, but not a single one of them to the Philippines. And yet a leftist party-lister who sits in the senior leadership of the House has dismissed the relaxation of foreign investor restrictions as “utterly preposterous and should be junked.”

Why would any decent legislator want to preserve economic policies that have self-evidently helped to keep us in poverty for so long? It is this poverty that has been rightly indicted as the main reason why our country is today the only one afflicted by what is now the longest-running Maoist rebellion in the world. Should we worry that this explains why party-lists like his appear to be espousing a pro-poverty, pro-rebellion agenda?

Readers can write me at [email protected]

Topics: Gary Olivar , Sotto voce , Mayor Chavit Singson , Senate President Tito Sotto , Heal as One , CITIRA tax reform
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