Senate of the Philippines

Upset Pia Cayetano fights for turn to scrutinize San Miguel Aerocity franchise bill

JC Gotinga

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Upset Pia Cayetano fights for turn to scrutinize San Miguel Aerocity franchise bill

Senate PRIB

Senator Pia Cayetano insists on having a go at checking an airport franchise bill that her colleagues, including Senate President Tito Sotto, are pushing to pass swiftly

One can just imagine the frustration of Senator Pia Cayetano during a Senate session on Monday night, October 5. She just wanted more time to study a bill that was up for interpellation – she had a very valid reason – but was spurned.

Cayetano found herself torn between taking on interpellations pertaining to the corporate recovery and tax incentives for enterprises (Create) bill that she has sponsored, and conducting her own interpellation on the bill granting San Miguel Corporation’s San Miguel Aerocity a franchise to build and operate an international airport complex in Bulakan town, Bulacan.

The Create bill proposes to gradually ease corporate income taxes from 30% to 20% over the next 7 years, and rationalize tax incentives afforded investors. It’s a complicated and potentially risky measure that has many of the senators wanting to pose probing questions to the bill sponsor, Cayetano.

On the other hand, the San Miguel Aerocity franchise bill has the support of many of the senators. It was lined up for approval on 2nd reading on Monday, with only two senators scheduled to ask questions beforehand.

The Create bill was tedious, while the franchise bill, as far as many of the senators were concerned, was practically good to go.

Preoccupied with the Create bill, Cayetano asked the body to defer closing the period of interpellations on the franchise bill so she could have more time to study it before taking her turn to interpellate. She suggested allotting more time to tackle the Create bill instead.

But the body wanted to finish with the franchise bill that same night, and then dedicate the next day’s entire session to the Create bill. This frustrated Cayetano.

Pasensya na, but kaya masama ang loob ko – kasi kung ang iba, humingi sa inyo ng time to study, binibigay ‘nyo. Ako na nakasalang sa floor – hindi ‘nyo man lang ako maisip na pagbigyan. Kaya mabigat sa akin, kasi parang you want to rush me to do this bill,” Cayetano told her fellow senators, referring to the franchise bill.

(I’m sorry, but that’s why I’m upset – because when the others ask you for more time to study, you grant it. I, who have been here on the floor – you wouldn’t even consider indulging me. That’s why it pains me, because it seems you want to rush me to do this bill.)

Cayetano had been defending the Create bill on the Senate floor for weeks, and on Monday evening there were still 10 other senators lined up to interpellate – or interrogate – her about it. She had wanted to space the interpellations and not cram them all in one day.

Cayetano, who was taking questions on the Create bill the previous session, had failed to signify her intent to interpellate on the airport franchise bill.

‘I feel pressured’

Earlier during Monday’s session, as Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri was about to move for the consideration of the airport franchise bill, Cayetano asked if the body could tackle the Create bill first so she could go through several of the interpellators on her list.

The Senate is set to take a month’s break starting October 15, and with only 3 session days a week, senators are hard-pressed to get bills passed. Further complicating things for Cayetano – she and her staff were self-isolating after a resource person they were working with tested positive for COVID-19.

“I have to admit that I feel pressured, especially since I don’t know how many days this will endure. And it will take me longer to respond to questions because I don’t have support staff with me physically present. I am sure you understand that situation,” Cayetano told her colleagues via web conference.

But Zubiri insisted on tackling the airport franchise bill first, keeping scheduled interpellations by minority senators Risa Hontiveros and Francis Pangilinan short so the bill could be passed on 2nd reading right after.

“Because the problem of franchise holders, when we have a break, if we don’t approve this [bill] this week, they will have a problem on 3rd reading and ratification of the bills, unlike Create [bill] – it’s a certified measure. We can tackle it anytime, approve it anytime on 3rd reading,” Zubiri explained.

That’s because as a priority measure of the Duterte administration, the Create bill can be approved on 2nd and 3rd reading on the same day. That would not apply to the San Miguel Aerocity franchise bill, which must have a 3-day interval between approval on 2nd reading and passage on 3rd reading.

Senate President Vicente Sotto III agreed with Zubiri. “This is something that the government will owe. ‘Eto, utang na loob ng gobyerno itong ipapasa nating ito (This, it’s a debt of gratitude of the government which we are about to pass),” Sotto said, referring to the airport franchise bill.

Cayetano then argued against rushing the franchise bill. As head of the Senate committee on ways and means, she reserved the right to interpellate – especially since it was specifically routed to her committee for input. To do this, she would need more time, she said.

Sotto, Danding Cojuangco, and Ramon Ang

Hearing Cayetano’s point, the body did allow several interpellations on the Create bill to go first. However, when they moved on to the airport franchise bill, the body still wanted to finish all interpellations in one sitting – including Cayetano’s.

This was when she turned a little emotional, saying she felt “envious” of Senator Grace Poe, public services committee chief and sponsor of the San Miguel Aerocity franchise bill. Poe seemed to be getting more support from their colleagues, Cayetano said.

Sotto, speaking from the rostrum of the Senate session hall, explained why even he is pushing for the swift passage of the San Miguel Aerocity franchise bill.

“I will be very candid. This is also my idea. It’s not just the idea of Ramon Ang. This has been the idea of Danding Cojuangco for a long time, and I am the chairman of the party. That’s why I am pushing for this. I’m part of the group that thought about this. We don’t want to give government any headache. Not a single centavo from government. It’s all San Miguel. That’s the reason that we want it supported by the others. Let’s just place that on record,” Sotto said.

Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco Jr was chairman and CEO of San Miguel Corporation (SMC) until he died on June 16. He was also the founding chairman of the Nationalist People’s Coalition (NPC), Sotto’s political party.

NPC endorsed Poe when she ran for president in 2016, and for reelection as senator in 2019, although she ran as an independent back then.

Ramon Ang is the president and COO of San Miguel Corporation.

“I have nothing to do with it. I’m not involved. But it’s part of my idea together with Danding Cojuangco and Ramon Ang many years ago,” Sotto added, talking about the airport franchise bill.

Zubiri then said Cayetano should not be “envious” of Poe because the franchise bill was a “no-brainer,” he said. The country stood to benefit from the project by a private corporation, he added – it will generate thousands of jobs and provide the country with a world class airport.

In a message to reporters, Sotto said the franchise bill had to be approved on 2nd reading on Monday night because otherwise, the 3-day rule would prevent Congress from ratifying it before they adjourn on October 14.

“SMC is already spending billions for the country, and further delay is regressive to their investment,” Sotto told reporters.

Cayetano: ‘Why did you put me in this position?’

The franchise bill exempts San Miguel Aerocity from direct and indirect taxes and fees during its 10-year construction period, and from income and property taxes for the remainder of its 50-year franchise. As a build-operate-transfer project, government will get to own the airport complex after its franchise expires.

After San Miguel recovers its investment in the project, it will be required to remit to the government any revenue beyond its entitled income of up to the equivalent of a project internal rate of return (IRR) of 12% per year.

Cayetano wanted to raise questions about the San Miguel Aerocity franchise bill to check for possible conflicts with the Create bill – it’s her job as ways and means committee chief, she said.

“Otherwise, why did you put me in this position if you’re not going to allow me to ask questions on major bills that create incentives?” Cayetano told the other senators.

Longest interpellation

In the end, her colleagues won out, and Cayetano took her turn to interpellate Poe on the airport franchise bill that same night.

Cayetano was apologetic for not having had the time to prepare, but she managed to engage Poe in a lengthy exchange.

“For somebody who did not prepare for this bill, it was quite impressive. I think you interpellated the longest,” Poe told Cayetano.

The Senate approved the San Miguel Aerocity franchise bill on 2nd reading on Monday night. The measure will be up for passage on 3rd and final reading within at least 3 days. –

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JC Gotinga

JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.