By Charmaine A. Tadalan, April 3 2019; Business World

Image Credit to Rappler

THE BILL amending the 82-year-old Public Services Act (PSA) to lift foreign ownership limits especially in the telecommunications and transport sectors may still make it out of the legislative mill before the 17th Congress ends in June, according to Senate leaders interviewed on Tuesday.

Senate Bill No. 1754, sponsored by Senator Grace S. Poe-Llamanzares, now awaits second-reading approval in the chamber after its counterpart measure, House Bill No. 5828, bagged third-reading approval in September 2017.

Asked if the measure can still be passed on third and final reading, Senate President Vicente C. Sotto III replied in a mobile phone message: “Best effort ‘yun.”

Mr. Sotto on March 21 told reporters the proposed amendment of Commonwealth Act No. 146 is among the Senate’s priority measures when lawmakers of the current Congress return to work for the last time on May 20-June 7.

Any measure that fails to make it out of Congress by the end of that period will have to start the legislative process in the 18th Congress.

Senator Sherwin T. Gatchalian, chairman of the Committee on Economic Affairs, confirmed in a separate phone message on Tuesday that “we will take up that bill” in those remaining session days.

Ms. Poe, chair of the Committee on Public Services, noted that the bill’s “interpellation already began before session adjourned” for the Feb. 9-May 19 break.

Ms. Poe said plenary debates on the bill are expected to focus on possible national security risks from the entry of foreign telecommunication service providers. Concerns have been raised about the entry particularly of telcos from China, with which the Philippines has a simmering territorial dispute in the South China Sea.

“Increasing FDI (foreign direct investments) and promoting national security are not conflicting goals. The country can have both as long as proper safeguards are observed,” she said in a text message.

“We will offer an amendment that gives the President and the National Security Council powers to review, suspend or prohibit an FDI transaction that threatens to impair national security.”

The central bank reported on March 11 that FDI net inflows dropped 4.4% to $9.802 billion in 2018 from $10.256 billion in 2017.

Overall, Ms. Poe said, “Foreign competition can give consumers more genuine alternatives to existing services.”

“Local companies have been operating for some time, so we expect them to be able to improve their quality of service and survive market forces,” she added.

Both House and Senate bills proposed to provide a clearer definition of “public services,” which had been used interchangeably with “public utility.”

The measure will narrow down “public utilities” to 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. — Charmaine A. Tadalan