MANILA, Philippines — A year of exceptional production. A banner year.

These were the words used by Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri to describe the chamber’s work in 2023, noting that 32 national and local bills it passed are now laws.

The Senate leader said he sees this as a testament to senators’ commitment to improving Filipinos’ lives.

“On behalf of the Senate, we express our gratitude to President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. for signing these measures into law,” Zubiri said.

“This highlights our shared vision of promoting the welfare of the people and the nation,” he added. looks back at some priority measures, including controversial ones, that clinched Senate approval in 2023.

Maharlika Investment Fund (MIF)

Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri signed the enrolled bill of the controversial Maharlika Investment Fund Act on June 21. It was then signed into law by President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. on July 18. | PHOTO: Office of Sen. Zubiri

Starting off with the highly-debated and highly-criticized MIF which hurdled the Senate’s third reading at 2:32 a.m. on May 31, after an 11-hour marathon session dedicated to amendments to the bill.

Voting 19-1-1, then Senate Bill No. 2020 was approved on final reading.

Opposition Senator Risa Hontiveros voted against the measure, Senator Nancy Binay abstained, while Senate Minority Leader Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III, Senator Francis Escudero, and Senator Imee Marcos were absent.

The measure, which is now Republic Act. No. 11954 after Marcos signed it into law, creates the Maharlika Investment Corporation to manage the MIF.

Pimentel, along with other lawmakers, previously challenged the constitutionality of this at the Supreme Court, claiming that it is a “dangerous law” as it entrusts billions of public funds to unknown fund managers.

READ: The caveats and promises of Maharlika Investment Fund

‘Unconstitutional’ 2024 budget

Like the MIF bill, the 2024 General Appropriations Bill containing the P5.768 trillion national budget for next year was also certified by Marcos as urgent.

The bill was approved by the upper chamber on November 28 — after a nine-day marathon plenary debate with 21 voting in the affirmative, zero negative votes, and one abstention.

Only Pimentel abstained from voting, reiterating his stand that Presidential Certification of Necessity and Urgency may only be used in certain circumstances.

Portions of the national funding for next year became controversial, particularly the provision of confidential funds to civilian agencies.

Both chambers of Congress resolved this issue by allocating secret funding only to national security agencies that are in need of such budget.

But days after the Senate and the House of Representatives ratified the bill, Pimentel flagged the bicameral conference committee’s decision to add a P450 billion to the unprogrammed appropriations of the 2024 budget, calling the move “unconstitutional.”

The minority senator earlier said the allocation may be challenged at the Supreme Court.

READ: Pimentel: 2024 budget ‘unconstitutional,’ may be raised before SC

P5.768-trillion 2024 national budget

Senators led by Senate President Juan Miguel “Migz” F. Zubiri witnessed on December 20, 2023 the signing into law of the P5.768-trillion 2024 national budget. | PHOTO: Senate PRIB

Public Private Partnership and Internet Transactions Act

The highly-favored Public Private Partnership (PPP) and the Internet Transactions Act (ITA) measures were among the priority bills identified by the Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council (LEDAC) chaired by Marcos.

Both bills garnered 20 affirmative votes in the Senate plenary on September 25 and were then unanimously approved on third and final reading.

According to Zubiri, the PPP Act will mobilize private resources to finance infrastructure projects related to transportation, health care, internet, supply chain and logistics among others. The ITA, on the other hand, will provide much-needed protection to consumers in online transactions.

The President signed both measures into law on December 5 while in isolation after testing positive for Covid-19.

READ: PPP bill nears enactment as Congress ratifies bicam report
READ: President signs PPP Code, Internet Transactions Act into law

Ease of Paying Taxes

Another key measure that the Senate takes pride in passing is the bill that seeks to simplify tax compliance and strengthen taxpayers’ rights in the Philippines.

Then Senate Bill No. 2224 was unanimously approved on third and final reading in the chamber’s plenary on September 25. Pursuant to its goal to simplify tax compliance, the measure specifically seeks to allow tax processes in the country to be brought online.

Senator Sherwin Gatchalian, chairperson of the Senate committee on ways and means, said the measure proposes the following revisions to the country’s tax system:

  • Option to electronically or manually register, transfer, and cancel registration without the need to pay P500 annual registration fee
  • Adoption of the accrual method for sale of goods and services for VAT purposes
  • Recovery of output VAT paid on uncollected receivables
  • VAT invoice as the only proof of transaction, and removal of the term “prominently” in the phrase “written or printed prominently” found in the current provision
  • Automatic indexation of the VAT threshold
  • Implementation of audit risk assessment in the processing of VAT claims
  • Fixing the period for processing of refund of erroneously paid taxes to 180 days from the date of submission of complete documents
  • Increase of threshold from P100 to P500 for transactions requiring official receipts, to be adjusted every 3 years using the Consumer Price Index

The ease of paying taxes is included in the administration’s LEDAC priority bills. Both chambers of Congress have ratified the bill, but Marcos has yet to sign it into law.

READ: Senate ratifies bicam report on ease of paying taxes bill

Magna Carta of Filipino Seafarers

Two days after Marcos certified the bill as urgent, the Senate approved on final reading the bill seeking to improve the working conditions and employment opportunities of Filipino seafarers.

The bill, otherwise known as the Magna Carta of Filipino Seafarers, garnered 14 affirmative votes, zero negative, and zero abstentions in the Senate plenary.

According to Marcos, there is a need to immediately enact the bill to address “recurring deficiencies in our domestic laws pertaining to the training and accreditation of thousands of Filipino seafarers.”

Marcos also stated that the bill also “guarantees to the international community” that the Philippines will comply with its obligations of ensuring that the country’s training, facilities, and equipment are at par with international standards.

Senator Raffy Tulfo, chairperson of the Senate committee on migrant workers, previously said the measure would soon be the “lighthouse to the voyages” of Filipino seafarers.

READ: Marcos certifies as urgent Magna Carta for Filipino Seafarers

‘Centers of Hope’

Noting the need to strengthen the Philippine health care system, the Senate unanimously passed a measure that proposes the creation of specialty centers in local hospitals across the country.

All 24 senators voted in favor of then Senate Bill No. 2212, which is a priority measure of the Marcos administration.

Senator Bong Go, sponsor of the measure, said the bill is a steadfast commitment and product of a collective vision to improve the country’s health care system.

“It demonstrates our commitment to delivering efficient, specialized healthcare to every Filipino,” said Go then.

Zubiri, co-sponsor of the measure, said the piece of legislation is “really close” to his heart.

“This is a campaign promise fulfilled. I will call them ‘Centers of Hope’ because it will give hope to many of our compatriots who are sick but cannot get proper and adequate treatment because they are in the province,” Zubiri said.

READ: Bill creating regional specialty centers in local hospitals clinches Senate nod

Tatak Pinoy (Proudly Filipino) Act

Another priority measure, the Tatak Pinoy (Proudly Filipino) Act was approved by the Senate with 23 affirmative, zero abstentions, and zero negative votes on November 6.

Senator Sonny Angara, author of the bill, earlier explained that the measure seeks to promote the production and sale of Philippine products and services of increasing diversity by domestic enterprises that are globally competitive.

Once the bill is signed into law, the creation of a Tatak Pinoy Council will be pushed. This group will serve as the policy and advisory body to the President.

To date, the bill is among pending measures awaiting the President’s signature.

READ: Senate OKs ‘Tatak Pinoy’ bill during resumption of session

Senate inquiry on contentious matters

Apart from legislation, the Senate likewise investigated controversial issues that drew national attention in 2023. Here are some of these contentious matters:

The Senate started the year by investigating the airport fiasco that inconvenienced at least 65,000 passengers at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport on New Year’s Day of 2023.

Senator Grace Poe, chairperson of the Senate committee on public services, said the glitch and the systems failure were caused by the inaction and lack of foresight of Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines leadership and the consequent lack of support from the Department of Transportation.

Not long after the air traffic fiasco, an airline-related mess also reached the Senate.

In June, the Senate committees on tourism and public services investigated Cebu Pacific after passengers reached out to the chamber and shared experiences of being offloaded without valid cause or reason.

Senator Nancy Binay’s resolution prompted the investigation.

During the public hearing, Cebu Pacific chief commercial officer Alexander Lao apologized to all passengers affected by the supposed disruptions, attributing this mess to fleet availability issues.

The budget carrier, through Lao, also vowed to resolve these challenges in order to “provide better care” to its passengers.

A cult victimizing its women and children members was likewise investigated by the upper chamber this year.

The religious organization, better known as Socorro Bayanihan Services Inc. (SBSI), has 3,650 members including 1,587 children.

Socorro Bayanihan Services Inc. (SBSI) leader Jey Rence Quilario alias Senior Agila

Members of the Senate security group accompany Socorro Bayanihan Services Inc. (SBSI) leader Jey Rence Quilario alias Senior Agila and three other members, Mamerto Galanida, Janeth Ajoc and Karren Sanico, to the Department of Justice in Padre Faura, Manila to attend a hearing on October 20, 2023. | PHOTO: Senate PRIB

Senator Risa Hontiveros initially raised the plight of SBSI members who were allegedly forced to engage in sexual acts and forced labor under the leadership of Jey Rence “Senior Agila” Quilario, whom members believe to be the next Jesus or the new messiah.

SBSI members are promised heaven. They were lured to join SBSI and were made to believe that those who defy Quilario’s words would go to hell.

Criminal charges were already filed against Quilario and 12 other members of SBSI.

In November, the Department of Justice said Quilario and others are facing cases for Qualified Trafficking in Persons, Facilitation of Child Marriage, Solemnization of Child Marriage and Child Abuse.

In August, the Senate investigated the case of 17-year-old Jerhode “Jemboy” Baltazar who was shot and killed by Navotas policemen after they allegedly mistook the teen for a murder suspect.

During the investigation, irregularities were seen by senators, prompting them to question the competency and reliability of the country’s police force.

The chamber’s inquiry revealed that all six suspects, as well as the entire police force deployed to the operation that killed the teen, did not undergo paraffin tests despite “clear instructions” from relieved Navotas Police Chief Colonel Allan Umipig.

Tulfo pointed out that “Lethal Approach” — one of the three Use of Force Continuum undertaken when suspects are armed, dangerous, or showing aggression —- was immediately used against Baltazar despite zero threats from the teen.

In October, the Navotas Regional Trial Court Branch 286 issued an arrest warrant for the six erring police officers:

    • Police Executive Master Sgt. Roberto Balais Jr.
    • Police Staff Sergeant Gerry Maliban
    • Police Staff Sergeant Antonio Bugayong Jr.
    • Police Staff Sergeant Nikko Pines Esquillon
    • Police Corporal Edmark Jake Blanco
    • Patrolman Benedict Mangada

All six were charged with murder. No bail was recommended.

A Philippine Offshore Gaming Operator (Pogo) allegedly involved in various crimes and offenses, particularly prostitution, human trafficking, torture, kidnapping for ransom, and online scams, was investigated by the Senate in November.

The firm in question was Smart Web Technology Corporation — an internet gaming licensee of the Philippine Amusement Gaming Corporation (Pagcor) located in Pasay City.

Deputy Minority Leader Risa Hontiveros and Senator Sherwin Gatchalian

Deputy Minority Leader Risa Hontiveros and Senator Sherwin Gatchalian inspects an alleged torture chamber inside a Pogo hub in Pasay City. | PHOTO: Senate PRIB

Senators Hontiveros and Gatchalian investigated the firm after agents of the Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Commission and the Department of Justice discovered that it houses an “aquarium-style” viewing chamber, an alleged torture chamber, and massage parlors reportedly being used for prostitution.

Despite its failure to regulate and monitor the operations of the firm, Pagcor Senior Vice President Raul Villanueva maintained that the agency is doing its mandate to inspect Pogos.

Your subscription could not be saved. Please try again.

Your subscription has been successful.

This, however, did not convince Gatchalian and Hontiveros who reiterated that these alleged crimes linked to Pogo hubs only strengthen the Senate’s call to permanently ban these types of firms in the Philippines.

READ: Senate panel recommends Pogo ban