By Vanne Elaine Terrazola
The Senate yesterday approved on second reading the coconut levy trust fund bill, much to dismay of coconut farmers and groups.
Because contrary to their appeal, the Upper Chamber passed a watered-down version of the Senate Bill No. 1223, or the proposed Coconut Farmers and Industry Development Act, filed and sponsored by Sen. Francis Pangilinan.
Voting 12-3, senators nixed Pangilinan’s original proposal to create a trust fund committee which would consist mostly of coconut farmers to manage the P76-billlion controversial coco levy fund collected from them since the Marcos administration.
Instead, majority of the senators favored the amendment of Sen. Ralph Recto, who moved to leave the disbursement of the coco levy fund to Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA) board, which shall be expanded to 11 members, six of which shall be occupied by farmers.
The Senate also voted to accept Recto’s proposal to include the coco levy fund in the annual General Appropriations Act (GAA).
The Kilusan para sa Ugnayan ng mga Samahang Magniniyog slammed the Senate move, which it said, is against the farmers’ 40-year appeal to get their money back.
The group said the lawmakers also “reversed” the Supreme Court’s earlier ruling that the fund should exclusively benefit the farmers, and instead “allowed” the billion-peso fund be “pork-barrelized” in its inclusion in the GAA.
Former Sen. Wigberto Tañada, who also witnessed the Senate’s voting yesterday, said the amendments were “unacceptable,” adding that the measure lost its “soul” which is the farmer’s representation.
Recto defends proposals
In statement sent to reporters today, Recto stood by his Senate-approved amendments to the coco levy trust fund bill.
Among his points, the Senate President Pro Tempore said the proposal to create a committee will “create so many bureaucratic layers and overlaps” when the management of the trust fund “can be done by an expanded and strengthened PCA.”
He said the PCA will then lead the “Coconut Industry Roadmap,” in which “all” stakeholders will participate.
The amended version even increased the fund, not only from the coco levy, but also with the PCA budget.
“The original proposal was for a Coconut Industry Development Fund that will only use interest income from the coco levy trust. This will amount to P2 billion to P2.5 billion a year. But why use only the coco levy fund when we have a counterpart fund from the government? Thus, the Senate version adds a guaranteed budgetary support of P10 billion to the PCA on top of trust income,” Recto said.
The coco levy, Recto noted, will remain trust account, but will be transparent.
“The fund will remain a trust account, but its usage, reporting, and expenditure will strictly follow budget, accounting, procurement and auditing rules. The trust income to be spent pursuant to the industry roadmap will be determined by the PCA and line-itemized in its budget. It will not be considered new appropriations, which means that while it can be subject to scrutiny, it cannot be spent for other purposes,” he assured.
The amended version also allows a “faster recovery” of the industry as compared to the original proposal’s 25-year time frame.
The trust fund, he added “will be invested in the safest instrument there is, the Republic-backed government securities.”