Senate leaders ask Duterte to intervene as House voids Road Board abolition

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Senate leaders have asked President Rodrigo Duterte to step in after the House of Representatives voided its earlier approval of a bill to abolish the graft-ridden Road Board even when the measure was already up for the Chief Executive's signature.

Senate President Vicente Sotto III and Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said in separate statements on Wednesday, September 19, that it was up to the President to solve the issue, especially as he himself had expressed support for the abolition of the agency.

Drilon said in a radio interview that the issue involved a "political process and a political decision."

"Ang susi rito, ang Pangulong Duterte na mapagsabihan ang House of Representatives na dapat tanggapin ang position ng Senado na tinatanggap ng Senado ang version ng House of Representatives, dahilan si mismong Pangulo po ay naniniwala na itong Road Board ay puno ng katiwalian," he said.

(The key here is for President Duterte to tell the House of Representatives to accept the Senate's position that we already adopted the House version because the President himself believes the Road Board is graft-ridden.)

"Kaya dapat ay sabihin niya sa super majority na tanggapin na itong batas na nag-abolish ng Road Board ay aprubado na at ipadala na sa Malacañang 'yung enrolled bill (He should tell the super majority to accept and approve the bill, and send it to Malacañang as an enrolled bill),” the senator added.

Sotto, for his part, said he had communicated the development to Duterte.

"I informed the President about it. We'll wait for executive action because we know the President wants it abolished," the Senate President said in a text message.

Rescinded approval

The Road Board was established under Republic Act 8794 in 2000 under then-president and now Speaker Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. The board is meant to manage and use the funds from motor vehicle user’s charge (MVUC) or road users' tax, as the agency does not get allocation from the national budget. 

The Senate first approved Senate Bill 1620, seeking to abolish the Road Board, on February 12, 2018. On May 15, the House, then under the leadership of bill author Pantaleon Alvarez, approved counterpart measure House Bill 7436.

There were differences in the two versions of the bill so a bicameral conference committee was needed to reconcile them.

But on September 12, upon motion of Senator Manny Pacquiao, co-author and sponsor of the bill, the Senate adopted HB 7436 to replace SB 1620. This meant that a bicam was no longer needed and the bill was up for enrolment for Duterte's approval.

But on the same day, the House, upon the motion of Majority Leader Rolando Andaya Jr, voided the House approval of the measure. There was no objection and the motion was implemented.

“Relative to HB 7436 which we have previously approved on 3rd reading. With leave of the House, I move that we rescind approval of the said bill and that we will no longer pursue its passage," Andaya said then, without giving any further reason.

'Legal issues'

Senators Drilon and Aquilino Pimentel III slammed the House decision, saying it is "legally questionable."

Tinanggap namin ang version ng HOR sa Senado na siyang nag-abolish ng Road Board. Noong narinig ng HOR na aming tinanggap ay kanilang binawi ang kanilang approval. May legal issue po riyan dahil pagtanggap namin, dapat tapos na ang proseso dahil wala ng pinagkaiba at wala ng bicam. Iyan po ang nangyari kaya may legal issue,” Drilon said in a radio interview on Wednesday, September 19.

(The Senate accepted the House version that will abolish the Road Board. When they heard that the Senate adopted their version, they rescinded their approval. There is a legal issue there because when we adopted their version, the process ended already because there are no differences and there is no bicam needed. That's what happened that's why there is a legal issue.)

"The lower house cannot just inform us later that they changed their minds and tell us the House version has ceased to exist anymore. The Senate actually made adjustments and approved their version already because we wanted immediate passage of a law addressing the Road Board," Pimentel said in a statement on Thursday, September 20.

"What we continue to have instead is an agency ridden with corruption and inefficiency. COA flagged the Board for such ills in its scathing 2017 report, precisely the reason why we sped up the measure to legislate the Board’s necessary demise,” he added.

Drilon also questioned the Road Board’s release of funds worth P13 billion while Congress was still deliberating on the bill that sought to abolish it.

Alam nilang ma-abolish na sila ngunit nagrelease pa ng ganoong kalaking pondo (They know they would be abolished and yet they still released such a huge amount),” Drilon said.

Corruption allegations persistently hound the Road Board. Alvarez had accused the office of extorting money from lawmakers by asking for kickbacks from infrastructure projects.

In 2009, then-senator Miriam Defensor Santiago lashed out at the Road Board for the “apocalyptic corruption” of about P60.5 billion in MVUC or road user’s tax. 

The Commission on Audit (COA) also earlier found that the agency misappropriated P90.7 billion in road user's tax.

Under the bill, the management of the said funds would be transferred to the Department of Public Works and Highways and the Department of Transportation, and that all funds collected under the existing law “should be deposited to special trust accounts in the national treasury.” – Rappler.com

Camille Elemia

Camille Elemia is Rappler's lead reporter for media, disinformation, and democracy. She won an ILO award in 2017. She received the prestigious Fulbright-Hubert Humphrey fellowship in 2019, allowing her to further study media and politics in the US. Email camille.elemia@rappler.com

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