FOI bill won’t be certified as urgent – Palace official

Delon Porcalla - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - A Malacañang official disclosed yesterday that President Aquino would not certify as urgent the Senate-approved Freedom of Information (FOI) bill, as he did with the sin tax and Reproductive Health bills.

“At this point, we have no plans to certify this (FOI bill) as urgent,” Presidential Communications Group Secretary Ricky Carandang told Palace reporters, adding that the President will only certify as urgent measures that are of national importance and significance.

He said the rationale is that there is a process that has to be followed.

Palace officials said that the House has their own process to pass the bill.

“He doesn’t certify many bills as urgent, and there’s a process that’s happening, that’s the organic process, and I think we just need to follow it.”

“There are debates... good debates going on in the House. And if you listen very carefully, there are very good arguments for and against the FOI. And I think Congress needs time to reach a consensus,” Carandang said.

The FOI version in the Senate, dubbed as the People’s Ownership of Government Information (POGI) Act of 2012, was passed on third and final reading this week, but the House version was delayed after Congress leaders said the measure will take more time to pass.

“FOI has been passed, as you know, by the Senate, and the process is ongoing in the House. We’re watching what’s happening in the House; we’re taking note of the arguments for and against,” the Cabinet official added.

Carandang said they would allow the senators and congressmen to push for FOI bill.

“There has been discussions with members in Congress and the draft that’s pending in the House has the inputs of Malacañang. So let’s leave it to Congress to move the FOI bill along,” he said.

Last month, Malacañang hinted that they would only be acting as mere observer in the FOI bill, unlike the sin tax bill and the 2013 national budget measure that have been prioritized by the Aquino administration.

“We’ll just wait for the developments in the House,” presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said of the FOI bill that seems to be stuck in the public information committee of Rep. Ben Evardone.

“Again, all these we leave with the legislature,” he added.

He said the executive department has already submitted the Palace version of the FOI bill, through Undersecretary Manuel Quezon III, which underwent deliberations in the House committee level.

Lacierda likewise couldn’t say whether Aquino would be giving a “stronger endorsement” in pushing for the bill’s approval, saying it’s all up to Evardone.

He added Evardone had expressed hope that the bill would pass out of committee soon.

No time for FOI bill

San Juan Rep. Joseph Victor Ejercito said time is running out on the FOI bill with the adjournment of the House yesterday for a month-long Christmas break.

Ejercito, one of the measure’s authors, said while the Senate has passed its version of the proposed FOI law on third and final reading, the House has barely started its plenary consideration of the bill.

The measure still has to go through the period of interpellations, amendments, second-reading and third-reading approvals in the House, he said.

He expressed doubts whether such a long and laborious process could be finished before the next adjournment of Congress in February.

He noted that the Senate and the House would reconvene on Jan. 21, hold sessions for nine days before adjourning again on Feb. 9 for more than four months until after the May elections.

The congressman-son of former President Joseph Estrada pointed out that what could save the FOI bill is its certification as urgent by President Aquino.

“If the President is serious in eradicating corruption in government, he should certify the bill as urgent. The Chief Executive and his allies in the House should prioritize the passage of the bill as it aims to promote accountability, transparency and good governance, which are President Aquino’s core advocacies,” he stressed.

Ejercito said the FOI measure should be given the same importance as the controversial RH bill.

On Tuesday, Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. said the House would try to approve the proposed FOI legislation next month.

“I personally am in favor of this bill,” he said.

Evardone, principal sponsor of the bill and chairman of the committee on public information, said the measure seeks to carry out the constitutional provision giving the public access to official information, including contracts, transcripts of meetings and other documents.

However, he said such provision also states that access is “subject to such limitations as may be provided by law.”

He said the bill requires the mandatory disclosure of the annual budgets of government agencies, itemized monthly collections and disbursements, summary of income and expenditures, procurements, contracts, and persons or entities given permits, licenses or franchises.

It also mandates the disclosure of the statement of assets, liabilities and net worth of the president, vice president, Cabinet members, members of Congress, Supreme Court justices, members of constitutional commissions, and military officers with the rank of general.

The measure covers all agencies of government, including local government units and state corporations.

Evardone said the bill provides for certain information to be exempted from the disclosure requirement.– With Jess Diaz

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