MARCH 19, 2007 (STAR) President Arroyo will sign into law before the end of the month several economic reform bills, the P1.126-trillion national budget and the 10-percent salary increase for government workers, Malacañang said yesterday.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Arroyo said the efforts of the administration to close the budget gap has fueled investor confidence in the country.

In a statement, the President said increased investor confidence has resulted in the creation of more well-paying jobs.

In a survey by global human resources consultants Hewitt Associates, the Philippines ranked third among countries in the Asia-Pacific region that showed increases in the salaries of workers.

Presidential Adviser for Political Affairs Gabriel Claudio said there are many approved measures awaiting the President’s signature but many of them will just be allowed to lapse into law, such as bills converting municipalities into cities.

"We are grouping the measures to be signed into clusters and we expect the much-awaited economic measures to be signed before the end of the month," Claudio said in a telephone interview.

He said Mrs. Arroyo will want to do a ceremonial signing of the Amendments of the Bases Conversion Development Authority (BCDA) law, the One-Time Tax Amnesty to Locators in Special Economic Zones and the P1.126-trillion national budget, as well as the salary hikes, as they are much-awaited by the business community and government employees.

The amendments to the BCDA law include other special economic zones outside Clark and Subic, that will offer same incentives as those to be had inside the two economic zones in Central Luzon, such as tax amnesty to compensate locators for the taxes they paid before the tax breaks were allowed as incentives under the BDCA law amendments.

The Joint Chambers of Commerce earlier said it is closely anticipating the enactment of these bills, as well as the pending Anti-Red Tape Act, the Credit Information System Act, the Customs Brokers Act, the Lending Company Regulation Act, the National Tourism Act and the Personal Equity and Retirement Account Act.

The foreign business community described the pending economic bills as part of the "second reform wave" of the Arroyo administration.

The foreign chambers also hailed the enactment of the anti-terrorism law, or the Human Security Act of 2007, last week.

Mrs. Arroyo on Wednesday said she would push for the immediate passage of the amendments to the Electric Power Industry Reform Act (EPIRA) and the Rationalization of Fiscal Incentive bill when Congress opens in July.

Budget Secretary Rolando Andaya Jr. said the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) is close to finishing its review of the budget for veto of minor provisions: "There will be nothing dramatic in the possible vetoes only the usual double counting, etc."

Andaya said he expects Mrs. Arroyo to sign the budget on or before March 24.

He also said the Palace will push for the immediate passage of the third phase of the Salary Standardization Law when Congress opens in July.

The President told the business sector and investors that providing good salaries to the Filipino workers should not be considered a bar to investment but should instead be "a guarantee of more profit to the firms that are putting a stake in our country."

"No one can beat the Philippines when it comes to fiscal discipline and the Filipino people when it comes to productivity and excellence," the President said.

Apart from fiscal stability, Mrs. Arroyo said her administration intends to pump-prime the economy by increasing investments in infrastructure, particularly in the countryside and at the grassroots level, "but economic strength is more than fiscal stability and a good payback to our human resources. We have to pump-prime the system and guarantee that its returns are felt in the countryside and grassroots levels through better infrastructure, quality education and a healthier people."

The President made the same statement yesterday at the inauguration of the new Sulipan bridge in Apalit, Pampanga, which she said was a product of the government’s tax collection efforts.

She said the bridge would benefit the residents of the province and northbound travelers from Manila.

She added that the "social flow down of economic gains must be reinforced by plugging revenue leaks, prosecuting tax cheats and smugglers and nipping graft in the bud through less red tape and stricter controls on wayward spending."

"We are keeping pace with the world in all aspects of economic and political stability, shoring up the welfare of the people, expanding democratic space and hitting hard on the threat of terror," she said. – Paolo Romero and Marvin Sy

RP confident relations with US to stay strong despite issue of killings The Philippine Star 03/18/2007

Malacañang expressed confidence that the relationship between the United States and the Philippines would remain strong in spite of the concerns raised about the unexplained killings in the country.

Presidential Spokesperson Ignacio Bunye said that the interest shown by the US government on the issue of unexplained killings of militant activists and journalists are being taken by the government as "a constructive gesture from a time-honored ally."

Bunye downplayed the controversy raised over the US Senate’s inquiry into the unexplained killings in the Philippines which has been criticized by several sectors as Washington’s interference with Manila’s domestic affairs.

"The strategic partnership of the Philippines and the United States remains steadfast and firm despite the issues that tend to invite transient controversy," Bunye said.

Philippine National Police (PNP) deputy chief for administration Gen. Avelino Razon said the US government expressed confidence in the measure being taken by the Philippine government to solve the unexplained killings.

Guesting in the weekly radio program "Para sa Iyo Bayan" of Vice President Noli de Castro, Razon said Senate East Asian and Pacific Affairs sub-committee chairman Sen. Barbara Boxer and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Eric John acknowledged President Arroyo’s efforts to address the problem.

"They continue to assert confidence in what the government of President Arroyo is doing to solve the unexplained killings," Razon said.

Briefing, not hearing

Razon, former Task Force Usig chief, and other police and military officers who acted as resource persons of the Philippine Embassy in Washington, said they met yesterday with John and representatives of the panel to explain the human rights situation and the political killings.

"We explained to them what is really happening in the country. The hearing went well and they were open-minded," he added.

Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez described the inquiry as unfair as it did not hear the side of the government.

But Philippine Ambassador to the US Willy Gaa explained no government representatives were invited by the committee to appear in the hearing because of the issue of sovereignty.

"It is not normal to have a government representative in the hearing because of the issue of sovereignty, as if we are being investigated," Gaa said.

Concerns were also raised about the effect the inquiry would have on the US government’s military aid to the Philippines.

But Malacañang is also confident the aid would not be affected since this has been part of a long-standing bilateral agreement between the two countries.

"Our ties have withstood the test of time through generations past and will never be dispirited as the Philippine-American alliance is anchored on the overall platform of democracy and prosperity, in the fight against terror and poverty," Bunye said.

"This government has never faltered in its adherence to rule of law and respect of human rights and is closely in step with the world human rights community," he added.

In fact, the hearing resulted in more help forthcoming from the US government.

PNP chief Director General Oscar Calderon welcomed yesterday the US’ commitment to train 40 Task Force Usig investigators and prosecutors handling the unexplained murders in the country.

Department of Interior and Local Government Assistant Secretary for Peace and Order Danilo Valero reported yesterday that John assured the police and military team that went to the US of the support of his government to help the Philippine government in addressing this concern.

"This development is an encouraging gesture of support to the efforts of the PNP Task Force Usig in seeking the truth and prosecuting suspects behind the unsolved cases of slain militant activists," Calderon said.

Calderon also said that the hearing of the US Senate Sub-Committee on East Asia and Pacific Affairs will do a lot to help find solutions to the problem of unsolved killings as well as problems besetting investigators that often hinder their capability to solve these cases.

"For one, the lack of witnesses could be offset by forensic evidence that can be adduced through modern technical equipment and highly skilled crime laboratory technicians. Thus, technical and training assistance may be provided by the US," Calderon said.

"The fear factor that intimidates witnesses from testifying may also be addressed by a well-supported witness protection program that really supports and protect the witness and his family," Calderon added.

US satisfied?

Valero, quoting Razon, said John had told the US Senate subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs during its hearing on the unexplained killings that "no Philippine administration has done as much substantively and institutionally as what (the Arroyo administration) has done over the past years" in addressing this sensitive concern.

John also told the US Senate subcommittee that "we are encouraged by the steps that the Philippine government has taken to date," on the cases of unexplained killings.

Valero said John was also all-praise for the AFP and the PNP for its work in battling the al-Qeada-linked terrorists.

Meanwhile, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), bared yesterday that five criminal cases have been filed against its own personnel after they were indicted in the killing of militant and labor leaders as well as journalists.

AFP Public Information Office (PIO) chief, Lt. Col. Bartolome Bacarro said that the aside from the five cases filed in court, six other cases involving government troops and civilian agents are still under investigation.

Bacarro identified the soldiers now facing charges in court as Cpl. Alberto Rafon, a member of Task Force Panther of the 2nd Infantry Division based in Tanay, Rizal; Cpl. Esteban Vibar, a member of the 42nd Infantry Brigade base in Bicol, and M/Sgt. Antonio Torilla, who is based in Cotabato.

Vibar and Torilla are under the custody of the military. Rafon was dismissed from the service after going on AWOL (Absence Without Official Leave).

According Bacarro, the three cases were among the 19 cases already investigated by the Armed Forces of the Philippines-Human Rights Office (HRO). Six other cases involving its personnel are still under investigation.

The remaining eight cases were either dismissed or settled amicably, including that filed against retired Army Maj. Gen. Jovito Palparan.

From whom it began

Meantime, Philip Alston, the United Nations rapporteur who was invited by the Philippine government to conduct an independent investigation on the unexplained killings in the country will report to the United Nations Human Rights Body by the end of the month.

Claro Cristobal, DFA spokesman told the weekly Kapihan sa Sulu news forum that Alston will submit his report and will brief the UN body on March 27.

"We have no idea what his report will be but we think, it will not be different from his earlier pronouncements to the media," Cristobal said.

In his initial report, Alston highlighted the supposed "denial state" the military and police are in as regards unexplained killings.

Cristobal said that the impact of the Alston report could not yet be determined but he clarified that whatever conclusion the UN investigator reaches will help in the resolution of the cases that have remained unsolved in the past several months. – Marvin Sy, Jaime Laude, Pia Lee-Brago, Perseus Echeminada

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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