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‘PH for sale’: Solons hit move to allow foreign ownership of public utilities

/ 02:27 PM February 20, 2020

MANILA, Philippines — Several lawmakers have thumbed down the bill seeking to allow foreign ownership of some public utilities in the country.

Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman said House Bill 78, which was recently approved on second reading in the House of Representatives, is “fatally violative” of the 1987 Constitution since it would allow public utilities such as transportation and telecommunication to be owned by corporations.

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Citing the Constitution, Lagman said that ownership, operation, control, and management of public utilities should be given to Filipino citizens or to firms that are at least 60 percent owned by Filipinos.

House Bill No. 78, which seeks to amend the Commonwealth Act no. 146, known as the Public Service Act, distinguishes “public service,” whose definition under the law is retained, from “public utility.”

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The bill limits the definition of a public utility to electricity distribution, electricity transmission, and water pipeline distribution or sewerage pipeline system.

Thus, sectors not considered to be public utilities—such as telecommunications and transportation—would no longer be covered by the citizenship requirement.

However, citing Supreme Court rulings, Lagman said that there is no distinction between “public utility” and “public service”.

“It is well-settled that public service is an indispensable attribute or element of a public utility, and the two are synonymous and interchangeable, so much so that there is no sound reason for making a distinction to justify defiance of the Constitution by allowing the non-compliance of ‘public service’ enterprises with the requirement of Filipino citizenship,” Lagman said in a statement.

“The ‘New Public Service Act’, if enacted into law, is a mere statute which cannot amend the fundamental law,” the lawmaker added.

Albay Rep. Joey Salceda, who authored the bill, explained that “competition and foreign investment are inhibited because limitations that should only apply to the operation of a public utility are applied to all public services.

“This situation is caused by the ambiguity in the definition of public utility that is often used interchangeably with public service under Commonwealth Act No. 146. The key to fixing this problem is to develop a clear statutory definition of public utility,” Salceda said in the bill’s explanatory note.

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The lawmaker added that the enactment of the bill once signed into law will be beneficial to consumers.

“This legislative reform will significantly contribute to increasing competition, as well as protecting the public interest. More competition among providers would result in lower prices and improved quality of basic services, creating a more competitive economy towards a better quality of life for all,” Salceda said.

‘Ironic’ given current issues

Lawmakers in the Makabayan bloc of the House of Representatives also hit the proposed measure.

Gabriela Party-list Rep. Arlene Brosas said it is “ironic” that the government is pushing for the measure given the current issue with media giant ABS-CBN’s bid for franchise renewal.

“Napaka-ironic na habang pinag-uusapan o ayaw ng gobyerno na bigyan ng prangkisa ang ABS-CBN dahil daw sa reason na may foreign entity, pero nagbubukas naman ng todo todo sa pamamagitan ng House Bill 78,” Brosas said in a press briefing on Thursday.

(It is so ironic that the government does not want to give the franchise to ABS-CBN over the alleged involvement of a foreign entity but we are opening foreign ownership through House Bill No. 78.)

For Kabataan Party-list Rep. Sarah Jane Elago, the bill shows President Rodrigo Duterte’s government’s “hypocrisy.”

“Habang may issues sa ABS-CBN at Rappler dahil umano sa pagma-may-ari ng dayuhan, eto naman at nilalako ang mga vital na services sa dayuhan,” the youth lawmaker said.

(While ABS-CBN and Rappler have issues over their alleged foreign ownership, here we are selling our vital services to foreigners.)

‘PH for sale’

Elago also said that the bill runs problems with the country’s privacy and national security.

“Sa PSA, ang public service naging Philippines for sale,” Elago said.

(Under PSA, public services have put Philippines for sale.)

“Gayun din, dahil sa ibibigay na latitude for information control na 100 percent ownership sa communication at transportation, ito rin ay magiging banta rin sa privacy at national security ng ating bayan,” she added.

(Because of the latitude for information control we are giving through 100 percent ownership in communication and transportation, this will threaten our privacy and national security.)

ACT-Teachers Party-list Rep. France Castro called House Bill 78 as “harsh” since it is essentially “selling” the country’s vital utilities to foreigners.

She expressed hopes that the Senate will block the measure.

With the bill approved on second reading, it will now only need approval on third reading for the bill to hurdle the lower chamber.

JE
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