Budget, tax reform in Senate, ahead of bicam talks

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Senate of the Philippines building -- BW FILE PHOTO

IN WHAT is expected to be at least three weeks left for Congress to pass the priority legislation of President Rodrigo R. Duterte’s administration, the Senate this week is expected to tackle amendments to the 2018 national budget and to the tax-reform program, its leaders said.

“We discussed what will be taken up until the last day of Dec. 15,” said Senate Majority Leader Vicente C. Sotto III.

“Budget amendments will be taken up [Nov.] 20-21,” Mr. Sotto said, adding, “Nov. 22-23 will be devoted to TRAIN (Tax Reform Acceleration and Inclusion program). The week after that, we can devote our time to other bills pending, [but] those are the two bills that we need to pass before the end of the year, and during the time that we are taking this up, ay nag ba-bicam na ang dalawang panel (both chambers of Congress will have been holding their bicameral meetings).”

Committee leaders in the House of Representatives also acknowledged when sought for comment that the chamber is preparing for bicameral conference discussions on the budget and the TRAIN — both balls now being in the court of the Senate, which is expected to pass those measures on third and final reading.

“Yes, we’ve been prepared… We’re doing some extra research — a little bit of research on [the] legal aspects… It’s just a preliminary research,” Quirino lone district Representative Dakila Carlo E. Cua, chair of the House committee on ways and means, said of the tax-reform measure being tackled by the House anew. The House had passed its version of TRAIN last May.

“I don’t think [the changes] will be very significant because… we made room already for the… P40-billion allocation for free tuition. I think there won’t be a lot of point of discussion anymore,” Mr. Cua said in anticipation of the Senate version.

For his part, Davao City 1st district Rep. Karlo Alexei B. Nograles, chair of the House committee on appropriations, said of the budget: “Definitely we have to go on bicam if it’s a different version but on whether when that will happen, obviously, the sooner the Senate finishes their version, the sooner we can schedule a bicameral conference committee.”

While the budget and TRAIN are the priorities, Mr. Nograles said the House can also pass other measures before Congress adjourns on Dec. 15 — among them, free irrigation, utilization of the coco levy fund, and estate tax amnesty bills.

“[There are] several other bills…that we hope to be able to pass by second or third reading before we adjourn for the Christmas break,” Mr. Nograles said.

Asked if this is doable for the chamber, he said: “We in the House of Representatives, we don’t have a problem with that because we act fast.”

For his part, Senate Minority Leader Franklin M. Drilon said in an interview with reporters on Sunday, Nov. 19: “Magiging transparent ang Senado. Yung amendments ay pag-uusapan in open session. Hindi katulad dati na ang amendment ay pinag-uusapan lang sa loob ng komite at ipiprisinta sa floor (The Senate will be transparent. Amendments will be discussed in open session unlike before that amendments were discussed within the committee and would be brought to the floor afterwards).”

Ngayon po ay ipi-prisinta sa floor at aming pag-uusapan item-for-item para sa transparency at para sa pagbabago ng budget (Now, it will be presented to the floor and we will discuss it item-for-item for the transparency of the changes that will be made in the proposed 2018 budget),” he added. — Arjay L. Balinbin and Minde Nyl R. dela Cruz