, JANUARY 11, 2011 (STAR) By Aurea Calica - Malacañang would not propose Charter change (Cha-cha) and any new taxes to Congress as Cabinet members met yesterday to discuss priority measures to be presented at the forthcoming Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council meeting.

But the Responsible Parenthood Bill, formerly the Reproductive Health Bill, now pending in Congress is among 30 legislative measures that the Cabinet would submit to President Aquino for approval, Presidential Communications Development Secretary Ricky Carandang said after the Cabinet workshop on the legislative proposals from the different departments.

Carandang said new taxes and Cha-cha were not discussed because the President did not consider them as priorities in his reform agenda.

“We’re not at the point yet where we want to (raise) or introduce new taxes. There are measures that can be proposed that could enhance tax collection. As the President said even when he was campaigning, that will be his last priority,” Carandang said.

On Charter change, Undersecretary Abigail Valte told Palace reporters, “The President has always said, nobody has been able to come up with a reason, or should we say, nobody has presented an argument that validates that Cha-cha is urgent, and that not doing so at the moment will place the country at risk.”

Valte nevertheless said they would study any Cha-cha proposal.

Aquino, when he was still a senator and presidential candidate, was open to amending the Charter, but only through a constitutional convention.

“We’ll have to see first. For this particular issue, the President has been consistent with his stand. But now that it has come up again, the President has not yet had any comment on the matter,” Valte said.

Lawmakers led by Eastern Samar Rep. Ben Evardone, an ally of Aquino, are seeking to revive efforts to amend the 1987 Constitution after the President declared that he would not be seeking another elective post in 2016.

Evardone said Aquino’s announcement should be an impetus to Cha-cha advocates. Critics are wary of such move since it might extend elective officials, including the President.

Evardone said he will file a bill next week calling for the election in May this year of delegates to a constitutional convention that would make amendments to the Constitution.

He said he aims to file the measure on Monday when the 15th Congress resumes session.

“Hopefully, if the Senate and the House approves it (bill) before we adjourn in March, then we could have the elections (of delegates) in May and the work of amending the Constitution could start in July, and probably, the people can ratify them (amendments) by next year. That’s my optimistic timetable,” Evardone said in a telephone interview.

“I think this is the best time to start the national debate on Cha-cha,” he said.

He said all present members of the Senate, the House of Representatives and local elected officials should not “benefit” from Cha-cha, particularly on extending their respective terms in office.

He said among those supporting the revival of the campaign for Cha-cha are Davao City Rep. Karlo Nograles, Biliran Rep. Roger Espina, Quirino Rep. Dakila Cua, Marinduque Rep. Allan Velasco, Marikina Rep. Romero Quimbo, Laguna Rep. Dan Fernandez, Bohol Rep. Rene Relampagos, and Negros Occidental Rep. Albee Benitez.

Former president and now Pampanga Rep. Gloria Arroyo filed in one of her first measures a resolution calling for Cha-cha through a constitutional convention.

Cha-cha moves welcomed

Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr., for his part, welcomed yesterday renewed efforts in the House of Representatives to amend the 1987 Constitution but warned such a move is potentially divisive and could derail urgent bills if the chamber would not study the matter carefully.

“Well, it’s (Charter change) a good thing because in the past, it could not push through because of suspicions that it would be used to extend the terms (of elective officials). Nonetheless, it’s a time consuming thing, in some cases, maybe a divisive thing, that’s why I would like to study it further and we have all the time to talk among ourselves here in the House and discuss with other sectors,” Belmonte told the Kapihan sa Diamond Hotel forum.

“The President said he has no intention of running or holding any public office after being President. And that seems to have signaled an interest in Charter change. For me, I would like to think deeper on it because we also want to rush the approval of some urgent bills in Congress,” Belmonte said.

He said it does not mean that if the House would tackle amendments to the Constitution, priority bills would automatically by sidelined but definitely any discussion on Charter change “would definitely be time-consuming.”

“I’m not saying no. I just want that matter studied carefully. In the end, definitely it will not be Congress that will do this (make amendments). Nobody would be in favor of that. The people want another body,” he said, referring to a constitutional convention.

He said the people have “distrusted over time” the constituent assembly—the Senate and the House convening as one Charter-amending body.

The Speaker has already drawn up a list of priority bills, mostly economic and anti-corruption measures that he would propose to Aquino in the coming Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council meeting later this month.

Anyway, he said, there is the House committee on constitutional amendments that is doing a “full-time job” of studying the issues and the move of Evardone would surely be taken as inputs of the panel.

Belmonte noted the President’s statement was not meant to signal the start of Charter change.

“He just wants to tell the public that this President will do everything he can in six years and will not say that there are uncompleted jobs that should be continued (by him),” he said.

Pro Cha-cha senators

Meantime, two senators aired their support to the calls to start the debates on Charter change now as long as the proponents make clear their plans on which provisions of the Constitution would be amended.

Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile noted that he has long been a proponent of amending the Constitution, particularly its economic provisions, some of which he said unfairly benefited some sectors.

Enrile cited the provision limiting foreign ownership of land in the country as among the amendments that must be made once Charter change is discussed.

Senate committee on justice and human rights chairman Francis Escudero said that any move to amend the Constitution must be done in the first two years of the current administration, because it is in these years that suspicions about the motives for tackling Charter change would be less pronounced.

Escudero urged the pro-Cha cha lawmakers “to specify and clarify which provisions they want amended and what exactly the proposed amendment is.”

Sen. Jinggoy Estrada said he is more open to support these efforts now under the administration of President Aquino, who has already stated that he has no plans to seek any other elective post after his term ends.

However, Sen. Francis Pangilinan expressed his reservations about Charter change as the solution to the country’s many problems.

25 bills

Carandang said the Cabinet was targeting to submit 25 bills to Congress as the administration’s priority.

He explained he was not sure yet whether RP or RH bill would be included in the 25 priority bills.

“The important thing is it was tackled,” Carandang said.

And even if it would not be included in the list of 25 priority bills, Carandang said: “We’re already moving with the distribution of family planning methods and the information campaign so whether that ends up in the agenda or not, we’re already doing something. So it’s a question of whether we would prioritize the bill itself.”

“We want to submit only about 25 because of the time (factor), so you don’t want to put too many priority bills,” he said.

But Carandang also said the President would have a final say on the list, including the number of bills he would want Congress to prioritize.

He said one of the main criteria for the bills would be relevance to the President’s 16-point agenda during the campaign, which focused on anti-corruption and jobs generation.

“It should also have maximum impact, we’re looking at bills that will have the largest impact on people. And of course doability, there are bills that cannot be expected to be signed soon. So how easy it is to get this legislation passed is also a factor,” Carandang said.

There were no specific bills on judicial reforms but some of the proposed political measures were the defense plan and a follow up on the baselines bill to complete the drawing up of the country’s territories.

Carandang said the proposals that the President mentioned in his first State of the Nation Address in July were included in the discussions.

These were the Fiscal Responsibility Bill, which would limit spending bills only for appropriations that have identified a source of funding. The President said there was also a need to re-evaluate fiscal incentives given in the past.

Aquino added he would not allow another scandal like the national broadband network deal to happen again and asked for Congress’ help in amending the Procurement Law.

To ensure a fair market and avoid monopolies and cartels that kill competition, the President sought for the passage of an Anti-Trust Bill that would give life to these principles and to afford small- and medium-scale enterprises the opportunity to participate in the growth of our economy. – With Delon Porcalla, Paolo Romero, Marvin Sy

All rights reserved