COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva1 -

The New Year is two days old today. But this early, our lawmakers are itching to initiate moves to either undo or redo laws that they themselves in Congress passed and approved. These solons have historically exhibited their propensity to amend our country’s laws, including the highest laws of the land — our very Constitution — even at the flimsiest of reasons. Thus, it’s no wonder our country has a poor image before the international investment community.

We would always hear the perennial complaint among foreign and local investors about the risks and challenges of doing business in the Philippines. They don’t only have to deal with uneven playing field but they also have to contend with changing the rules in the middle of the game.

Although Congress is in recess for their month-long Christmas break — sessions will resume on Jan. 19 — some lawmakers issued press releases or statements announcing their individual plans or desires to file proposed new legislations. Two of them caught my attention, perhaps, because of sheer lack of more hard news during the holiday period.

One was a reported proposal by the government to suspend for at least two years the implementation of the Congress-approved Lateral Attrition Law. The law, passed in 2005, prescribes penalties for personnel of the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) and Bureau of Customs who miss their collection goals by at least 7.5 percent. It also provides rewards for those who exceed their targets.

The proponent of this proposal is Valenzuela Rep. Magtanggol Gunigundo who filed a House Bill that seeks to protect BIR and Customs officials and personnel from being sacked should they fail to accomplish their periodic collection goals.

Gunigundo, who chairs the House committee on labor and employment, justified his proposal by citing the situation of revenue collectors who would have a hard time reaching their goals despite their best efforts because of the global financial crisis that is expected to hit the country hard this year. He pointed out the BIR and Customs should not be made to suffer the consequences of the global financial meltdown that would severely impair their tax collections.

Gunigundo argued this unforeseen development is a ground to allow the suspension of the Lateral Attrition Law. He wants the deferment to last for two years because he noted that the effects of the global financial crisis is supposedly to last that long. He fears that the BIR and the BOC might lose many of their personnel if the law is not suspended.

The Lateral Attrition Law was precisely passed to encourage BIR and BOC personnel to be more efficient in collecting taxes and revenues. Last year, Customs officials from Customs commissioner Napoleon Morales down to their janitors were proportionately rewarded with P500 million in bonuses for exceeding the Customs target 2006 collections. While the Lateral Attrition Law allows this, Morales came under fire for including himself in reaping the rewards due him under this law.

The Lateral Attrition Law that was pushed in Congress by the Arroyo administration is supposed to be a “revenue-neutral” measure, or it does not add nor lower the tax collections of the government. Lawmakers had all the time to scrutinize and review the implications of this proposed legislation before they approved this into law three years ago.

The proposed suspension of the Lateral Attrition Law is an indictment of the quality of the lawmaking process in Congress. It only shows lack of foresight and due diligence taken by our lawmakers in their legislative tasks to take into account all scenarios, in good or in bad times, of any proposed laws they consider.  

The other initiative being pushed in Congress is the proposed extension of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP). Cagayan de Oro Rep. Rufus Rodriguez announced he would file on Monday a bill that will seek to restore the essential provision of the CARP, that of compelling government to acquire the land for farmers. He said his proposed bill will not only renew the expired CARP program for five years and provide a P100-billion budget for the land acquisition but will also restore this compulsory acquisition of lands.

The CARP Law expired on New Year’s Day after being extended for six months in June 2008. The Senate and the House of Representatives have passed a joint resolution extending the program again for another six months, but removing the compulsory acquisition provision.

The Congress-approved joint resolution, which has the effect and force of a law, has yet to be signed by President Arroyo. But farmers protested against the joint resolution because they said it rendered the land reform program virtually toothless by leaving land acquisition at the mercy of landowners. Hacienderos, or big landowners, among the members of Congress are again accused as behind this “watered-down” version of the proposed extended CARP Law.

This joint resolution gives Congress enough time, until June 2009, to review the implementation of this land reform program and study the proposed passage of a new CARP law. In the meantime, the Department of Agriculture is backing the congressional approval of at least eight farm-friendly measures, including the proposed amendments to the Agri-Agra law that would supposedly help pump in more funds for loan assistance to the farm and fisheries sector.

In a statement, Agriculture Secretary Arthur Yap expressed the hope that legislators would be able to pass “farm-friendly” bills once Congress resumes session following its yearend break. He specifically wants the proposed amendments to the Agri-Agra Law to help ease the rural credit squeeze. Yap explained this proposed amendment will plug loopholes that have allowed commercial banks to buy government securities in lieu of setting aside 10 percent of their loanable funds for CARP mandated by this law.

Hopefully, our lawmakers would have the resolve to really exercise due diligence and provide for long-range plans for Philippine agriculture to give it the resources needed to push the growth potentials of the farming sector to the fullest. Thus, it is worthy to note that Speaker Prospero Nograles declared his leadership’s intentions to focus in instituting “economic safety nets” this year when Congress convenes later this month. 

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