To avoid Duterte veto, Congress asks Palace to return coco levy bill to them

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – The Senate and the House of Representatives on Tuesday, October 9, adopted concurrent resolutions requesting the Office of the President to return the coconut levy fund bill to Congress, in an attempt to save the measure from President Rodrigo Duterte’s veto. (READ: Coco levy fund scam: Gold for the corrupt, crumbs for farmers)

The Senate, voting 13-4, adopted Senate Concurrent Resolution No. 14, with Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon, Senators Francis Pangilinan, Risa Hontiveros, and Grace Poe as the oppositors. The House also adopted the counterpart measure, House Concurrent Resolution No. 22.

Senate Bill 1233 and House Bill 5745, containing the final approved version of the Coconut Farmers and Industry Development Act, were already transmitted to Malacañang for Duterte’s signature. The signing was originally set on Tuesday but was cancelled.

The coco levy refers to the tax imposed on coconut farmers under the Marcos administration but which was used to buy and invest in businesses of the late dictator's cronies. Farmers have been waiting for the passage of the measure for decades now.

In an effort to save the landmark measure, senators led by Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri held an emergency meeting with Duterte in Malacañang on Monday, before the Cabinet meeting.

“Last night, we had a meeting with the President to avoid a possible veto of a major legislative measure which is the coco levy fund use. Iveveto sana ng Malacañang ang bill na ito (Malacañang wanted to veto the bill)… So we are very happy na we were able to meet with the president to avert such a veto and we are now committed to recalling the measure, reconsidering it, and bring it back to bicam for further discussion,” Zubiri told reporters in an interview.

Aside from Zubiri, other senators present were Juan Edgardo Angara, Joseph Victor Ejercito, Cynthia Villar, Loren Legarda, Sherwin Gatchalian, Francis Escudero, and Richard Gordon.

The senators are blaming the fiasco on Presidential Legislative Liaison Office Secretary Adelino Sitoy. Zubiri said it could have been prevented had the PLLO did its job of actually liaising between the executive and legislative.

“Mahina ang PLLO natin. With due respect kay Secretary Sitoy, who is a good friend of mine, matalik kong kaibigan yan, pero sa totoo lang this could have been averted kung may nagbabantay na PLLO on the important measures such as this, and to explain to Malacañang na 'Ito ang gusto nila. Okay ba kayo rito?' Kasi kung may parameters sila, hindi aabot sa ganitong magkakaroon ng veto," he said.

(The PLLO was inefficient. With due respect to Secretary Sitoy, who is a good friend of mine, this could have been averted if there was someone from PLLO monitoring important measures like this. And to explain to Malacañang, 'This is what they want. Are you okay with it? Because if they have parameters, it would not have reached this point of veto.)

Bicam revived: Congress is set to reconstitute the bicam Tuesday evening to fix the amendments that are being opposed by Malacañang. They are eyeing to ratify the new bicam report on Wednesday, October 10, the last session before Congress adjourns.

The two contentious provisions are:

“Ang ayaw kasi ng Malacañang... majority ng grupo na maghahawak ng pondo ay civilians kasi sabi nila the funds, although it’s the fund of the farmers, but it is in trust with the government so parang they're treating it as government fund. So therefore yung composition dapat ng board na magbibigay ng pondo sa ating magsasaka ay dapat majority members of the government," Zubiri said.

(What Malacañang opposes is that the management handling the fund will be composed of more civilians than government representatives. They said the funds, although it's the fund of the farmers, it is in trust with the government so they are treating it as a government funds. So therefore, the majority of the composition of the board should be government representatives.) 

Farmer groups and coco levy advocates, however, have long been pushing for a higher farmers representation in the management of funds. After all, they said the multibillion money was stolen from coconut farmers, among the poorest of the poor, through an unjust taxation during the Marcos administration.

But according to Zubiri, Malacañang wants more government representatives for “accountability.”

Duterte has vowed to sign the bill into law once amended.

“Yes sabi nya pag naamyendahan yan mas mabuti kasi ayaw niya magalit ang mga magsasaka sa kanya pero ang gusto nya it's constitutionally compliant," Zubiri said. (Yes, he said it's better to amend it because he does not want the farmers to get mad at him but at the same time, he wants it to be constitutionally compliant.)

Watered down bill? The current version of the coco levy bill is already a watered down version for farmer groups, including Kilus Magniniyug. The Supreme Court, after all, ruled that the funds belong to the coconut farmers and should be used for their development.

But for Zubiri it’s better to have a compromise than to have no law at all. (READ: Coco levy fund: Duterte's failed promise)

“I agree but as a Majority Floor Leader, ano'ng gusto nyo i-veto na lang ni Presidente? 'Pag ivineto wala tayo magagawa (do you want the President to veto it? If the bill is vetoed, we can no longer do anything), I'm just trying to salvage what can be salvaged at this point in time,” he said. 

The return of the more than P70 billion coco levy fund was among the campaign promises of President Duterte. In 2016, he vowed to return the money in his first 100 days in office but to no avail. – Rappler.com

Camille Elemia

Camille Elemia is a multimedia reporter focusing on media, technology, and disinformation.

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