By Vanne Elaine Terrazola
Lawmakers would have to make major amendments on their approved bill creating the coconut farmers’ trust fund to avoid President Duterte from vetoing the measure.
Senate Majority Floor Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri revealed Tuesday that the Palace was close to scrapping the Congress-approved bill that would facilitate the distribution of the P105-billion coco levy fund to farmers.
In a press briefing, Zubiri said senators called for an “emergency meeting” with the Chief Executive Monday night “to avert a possible veto” of the landmark measure due to opposition by some Cabinet members.
In the photo he shared with reporters, Zubiri was with Sen. Cynthia Villar, Senate Agriculture Committee chairman; and majority Senators Sonny Angara, JV Ejercito, Francis Escudero, Sherwin Gatchalian, Richard Gordon, and Loren Legarda.
“Ive-veto sana ng Malacañang ang bill na ito… So we’re very happy that we are able to avert such a veto and we are now committed to recalling the measure, reconsidering it, and bring it back to the Bicam for further discussion,” he told reporters.
They only knew about the supposed plan to veto the measure when they learned that the bill was removed from the roster of measures that President Duterte was scheduled to sign Tuesday afternoon. It was listed first, said Zubiri.
“So when we asked, we were told that, ‘Sir, there’’s a possibility that he (President Duterte) will veto the measure today,” Zubiri recalled.
The Senate majority leader said they were fortunate to have been accommodated by Duterte before their Cabinet meeting last night (Monday night).
Zubiri filed a Senate concurrent resolution requesting the Office of the President to return to Congress the enrolled Senate Bill No. 1233 and House Bill No. 5745 bill on the proposed Coconut Farmers and Industry Development Act to enable Congress to make a “major amendment.”
He said the bicameral conference committee would reconvene Tuesday night to discuss the matter. Villar will lead anew the Senate contingent to the Bicam panel.
“We will try to salvage this very, very important peice of legislatire and pass again the Bicam report tomorrow (Wednesday),” he told reporters.
According to Zubiri, some Cabinet secretaries questioned the proposed reconstitution of the Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA) board to manage the distribution of the coco levy fund.
The Cabinet members, he said, “disliked” that the majority of the members of the new PCA Board will be civilians or farmers.
Lawmakers earlier agreed to designate the management of the trust fund to a reorganized PCA board, which shall be composed by six farmer respresentatives, one indusrtry represepresentative and four government officials to lead the panel. This way, coconut farmers would have more representation in the disbursement of the coco levy fund.
“Although it is a fund of the farmers, it is entrust(ed) to the government, so they’re treating it like government funds. So therefore, ‘yong composition dapat ng board na magbibigay ng pondo sa magsasaka ay dapat majority, members of government,” Zubiri explained.
Quoting the Palace, he added that there would be “no accountability” on the disbursement of fund should the PCA board be composed mostly of farmers.
The Departments of Budget and Management (DBM) and of Finance (DOF) also cited the lack of a “sunset provision” in the bill regarding proposed P10-billion fund to the PCA to augment assistance for coconut farmers.
The agencies, he said, rejected a “perpetual” allocation of the fund.
Zubiri assured that farmers will still be represented and would benefit in the amended coco levy bill.
With this development, he said the Senate would also have to reconsider its approved Senate Bill 1976 that would reorganize the 11-member PCA board. The measure was approved on third and final reading by the Upper Chamber just last September 24 to complement SB 1233.
The Sandiganbayan, in a decision August 7, ruled that the some P74 billion worth of assets assets from the Coconut Industry Investment Fund (CIIF) is owned by the state and must “be used only for the benefit of all coconut farmers and for the development of the coconut industry.”
Although inferior to the Supreme Court, the anti-graft court upheld the high tribunal’s 2004 and 2014 decisions declaring the government as owner of the coco levy funds. It reversed its 2017 decision allowing more hearings on the civil case involving United Coconut Planters Bank (UCPB) and the Coconut Planters Life Assurance Corporation (Cocolife).
Last August 1, the Congress bicameral panel approved the final version of the bill creating a coconut farmers and industry fund, responding to the SC’s September 2017 ruling that a law should be passed to be able to disburse the amount.
“They are still be represented but they are raising legal questions because it’s a legal fund to be handled by civilians,” Zubiri said.
“It’s either we amend it or it’s lost. Maging bato pa ang batas,” he said.
President Duterte, Zubiri said, committed to sign the measure when it has been amended to their favor.
‘Sack PLLO chief’
Zubiri said during their meeting with Duterte, senators complained and asked for the replacement of Presidential Adviser on Legislative Affairs Adelino Sitoy as head of the Presidential Legislative Liaison Office (PLLO) for his failure to communicate the Palace’s contention on the coconut trust fund bill.
“With due respect kay Sec. Sitoy who is a good friend of mine – matalik kong kaibigan ’yan – pero sa totoo lang (he’s a good friend of mine – but the truth is), this could have been averted kung may nagbabantay na PLLO (had the PLLO been on its feet) during important measures such as this, and to explain to Malacanang, ‘Ito ang gusto nila, okay ba kayo dito (This is what they want, is that okay with you)?’” he said.
“Maybe he is suited for other office, maybe he is not suited for PLLO,” Zubiri said.
Zubiri said some senators and congressman do not even know Sitoy, despite his two years in office. They more frequently see his undersecretaries.
Asked about President Duterte’s reaction, Zubiri said, “He just smiled.” Sitoy was not present in their meeting.
Zubiri said senators are also mulling to look into the PLLO budget for 2019 “to make it more efficient and answerable to problems like this.”