By Charmaine A. Tadalan, May 30 2019; Business World

Image Credit to Business World

IT’S BACK to square one for the bill amending the 82-year-old Public Service Act (PSA) to lift foreign ownership limits in certain sectors as it will fail to secure final approval with two session days left for the 17th Congress to wrap up its business.

Walang oras at hindi sinertify (There is no more time and President Rodrigo R. Duterte did not certify it as urgent for approval),” Senator Grace S. Poe-Llamanzares, chairperson of the committee on public services, told reporters on Wednesday.

She was referring to Senate Bill No. 1754, or the proposed “New Public Service Law of the Philippines,” which has awaited second reading approval as the chamber prioritized passage of the increase in excise tax on cigarettes, which received such certification from Malacañang on May 28.

She said she will prioritize the PSA amendment in the 18th Congress, which opens on July 22, and that she will include “safeguards” to address concerns on the entry of foreign investors.

Ipa-priority ko but with certain provisions that will have to be amended,” Ms. Poe said, citing the need to address concerns about the entry into utilities of businesses based in countries with which the Philippines has territorial disputes or which could prove anti-competitive for local businesses.

Pero ako, (But) I support it, eventually, na magkaroon talaga ng (that we have a new) Public Services Act kasi (because the existing one is) outdated na rin ‘yan; we just have to put safeguards in.”

Senate President Vicente C. Sotto III said in an interview with DzMM on Wednesday that the proposed PSA amendment is among measures that should be prioritized in the second half of Mr. Duterte’s term. “’Yung hindi namin mahabol ngayong hanggang next week, katulad nung Public Service Act, palagay ko ‘yun ang isa sa mga mahalaga (Bills that we will fail to approve till next week, like the Public Service Act amendment, I guess that is one of the priorities).”

The bill will amend the PSA, or Commonwealth Act No. 146, by providing a clearer definition of “public services,” which had been used interchangeably with “public utility.” In effect, it will narrow down public utilities to sectors engaged in the transmission and distribution of electricity, and waterworks and sewerage pipeline distribution system.

If enacted, the measure will lift foreign equity restrictions particularly on telecommunication and transportation service providers. The 1987 Constitution allows operation of public utilities that are at least 60% Filipino-owned.

Meanwhile, the Senate on Wednesday concluded the period of interpellation on SB 2233, which proposed to increase excise tax on cigarettes P45-60 per pack by 2023, and by 5% every year thereafter.

The chamber will resume plenary discussions on the bill on Monday for second- and third-reading approval.

Bills certified by Malacañang as “urgent” allows the Senate to approve the measure on second and third reading on the same day.

Its counterpart measure, HB 8677, proposed a P37.50-45 per pack increase by 2022, and by four percent annually thereafter. It bagged final-reading approval in the House of Representatives in December last year.

Cigarettes are at present levied P35 pack after Republic Act No. 10963 increased it to P32.50 in January 2018 from P30 previously, and then to P35 in July. The rate is scheduled to go up to P37.50 in January 2020.

The Department of Finance estimates the Senate version to generate an estimated P15 billion in revenues in the first year of implementation, lower than the P30.1 billion targeted under its original proposal of abruptly raising “sin” tax on cigarettes to P60. — Charmaine A. Tadalan