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Clock winds down on rice tariff bill signing with no announcement of veto

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NFA rice warehouse import
A worker at the NFA Quezon City warehouse. -- PHILIPPINE STAR/MICHAEL VARCAS

By Arjay L. Balinbin
Reporter

PALACE OFFICIALS said Thursday that the rice tariffication bill remains “for signing” right up to today’s deadline for President Rodrigo R. Duterte to veto the measure, but did not comment on the reason for the delay, adding an element of uncertainty to its enactment.

Failure to sign or veto the measure by today, Feb. 15 means the measure lapses into law. No definitive Presidential action was announced at deadline time in the early evening Thursday.

“Yes. Feb. 15,” Executive Secretary Salvador C. Medialdea said in a phone message on Thursday when asked to confirm if the measure is expected to lapse into law today unless vetoed by the President.

Mr. Medialdea, however, did not elaborate on why the President has apparently not acted on the measure, leaving open the possibility of a veto.

Farmers’ groups have been urging the President to veto the bill. The Federation of Free Farmers (FFF) has said the government will not be able to respond if the international price of rice turns volatile with the National Food Authority (NFA) restricted to a role of maintaining a minimum rice inventory.

However, Mr. Duterte’s spokesman Salvador S. Panelo said the President will not veto the measure and assured the public that the bill is now “for signing.”

“I texted (Mr. Medialdea) and he answered that it was for signing. So, it has not yet been signed, but it is for signing,” the spokesman said in an interview with DZMM on Thursday morning.

On the opposition of the farmers’ groups, Mr. Panelo said: “When the farmers went to the President to complain, he told them it was for the greater good. I know where you are coming from, the President said, but the interests of everyone need to be considered.”

The Foundation for Economic Freedom (FEF), business groups, and the administration’s economic team have been asking the President to sign the bill. They all contend that the measure, once signed into law, will help resolve several issues afflicting the rice industry, including smuggling, uncompetitive production costs, and corruption.

University of Asia and the Pacific Center for Food and Agribusiness Executive Director Rolando T. Dy said in a chat exchange that the rice tariffication bill is a “monumental reform, and it “will remove NFAs (National Food Authority’s) control over the rice industry.” He also noted that “there are players on both sides: the cabinet members [who are] for [it] and the NFA allies.”

“A major decision requires long discernment,” he said when asked why he thought it was taking too long for the President to sign the bill.

He added that “consumers, especially the 22 million poor [Filipinos], will benefit from lower rice prices” if the bill becomes law.

“The poor spend up to 30% of their budget on rice, The government must fast-track funds for affected farmers for income transfer to compensate for potential losses,” he also said.

Ateneo Policy Center research fellow Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco said in an e-mail that the political side of the President’s decision-making process must also be considered.

“There is a political aspect in the sense that the decision-making process of President Duterte is like that of a local chief executive, like a city mayor which he was for many years. He relies more on his political instincts, honed by decades of experience in the realm of public service, than on experts’ opinion or research-based recommendations.”

He said the President “may appreciate the studies presented to him by his economic managers, but as the past three years have shown, he will still rely on his gut-feel and street-smarts on this rice tariffication issue, on any issue for that matter.”

“In this regard, it will always be very difficult to anticipate the President’s next move or to even speculate as to his leanings on issues waiting for his decision. Clearly, even his closest allies are burdened with this challenge,” Mr. Yusingco said further.

In a phone interview, University of Santo Tomas (UST) political science professor Marlon M. Villarin said: “If you ask me, I think the President will not sign it. The last time I heard from the Palace is that for as long as he is not satisfied that we are capable of really providing a mechanism that will provide a safety net to the local industry, he will not support it and just let Congress approve it. Because whatever happens, the political accountability lies with Congress. Maybe that is one way of how the President wants to define the political, the administrative, and the economic accountability should a problem arise in the near future because of this rice tariffication law.”

He added: “The President is trying to weigh the interests of the demand (side) and at the same time he is looking at the interests of the supply (side) of the industry. If the rice tariffication bill is signed into law, it will only mean one thing, that the NFA will no longer have a full control over the importation of rice, because the purpose of the rice tariffication program is to liberalize the importation of rice to address food security issues.”

“The concern of the President here is whether it will be detrimental or beneficial to the local rice suppliers. Just like what we are experiencing in the vegetable industry in Mountain Province. The vegetable growers there are having difficulty in competing with imported vegetables. That is one of the crucial things that the President is trying to consider.”

He noted that “the midterm elections is about to happen and you know very well that most of the rice cartels in the Philippines are protected by the local government leaders. And they are one of the underground sources of political funding, but the concern of the President, the last time I heard, (is to avoid) repeating the same mistakes, just like what is happening to our vegetable growers.”