Zubiri: Senate to study Maharlika fund bill with 'fine-tooth comb'

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, December 16) — While the House has approved on final reading the Maharlika Investment Fund bill, Senate President Juan Miguel "Migz" Zubiri vowed they will thoroughly study the proposal next year amid concerns of it being certified as urgent.

"We respect the committee system in the Senate and we will study through the hearings and plenary debates all measures with a fine tooth comb to make sure every bill or proposal would be good for our people and our country," Zubiri said Friday.

He added the speed of the passage of the measure would depend on the ability of the committee chairperson leading the Senate deliberations and the "quality of work" put in during the hearings, defending "that's how it's always been in this institution."

The Senate minority bloc has questioned President Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr.'s decision to certify House Bill 6608 as urgent, which resulted in the rushing of the second and third readings in the lower chamber.

There were 279 affirmative votes for the controversial MIF bill, a huge debacle for the six lawmakers who voted against its passage on Thursday, the last House session before the holiday break.

The bill will be transmitted to the Senate, along with other measures that got the House's final nod on the same day.

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Senate Minority Leader Aquilino "Koko" Pimentel III said the certification of urgency will give the impression that senators would need to "speed up things" for the MIF bill, which proponents believe would help the country's economy.

"I hope this will not be the feeling in the Senate," Pimentel said. "The Maharlika Fund will have extensive effects and ramifications not only to our generation but potentially to future generations of Filipinos."

"Hence this should not be rushed. Haste makes waste," he added.

Sen. Risa Hontiveros, the other minority senator, criticized the proposed fund as a "premature" and "misplaced priority," distracting the country from matters such as addressing inflation, raising the wage of workers, and providing aid for the elderly, solo parents, and the disabled.

"Our economy is already hurting now, imagine the world of pain we'll be in if we rush head first into a ₱250 billion mistake," Hontiveros said.

Sen. Joel Villanueva, who supports the establishment of a sovereign investment fund, also said on Thursday further discussions are needed in the Senate to safeguard proper management, transparency, and accountability.

Mid-February deliberations

According to Zubiri, the final House version of the MIF bill, along with other measures, would be transferred or referred to them by Jan. 23, 2023, the resumption of Congress sessions.

For the MIF bill, it would go through first reading then be referred to at least four committees, namely the Committee on Banks, Financial Institutions and Currencies as the lead Senate panel, and the Committees on Government Corporations and Public Enterprises, Ways and Means, and Finance as secondary panels, Zubiri said.

"After the referral to the proper committees, it will be now up to the chairmen to schedule the hearings for discussion which could be by middle of February," Zubiri told reporters.

The chairpersons of the mentioned Senate committees are as follows:

- Banks, Financial Institutions and Currencies — Sen. Mark Villar

- Government Corporations and Public Enterprises — Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano

- Finance — Sen. Sonny Angara

- Ways and Means — Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian

"So [please] ask Sen. Mark Villar what his plan maybe as he most possibly will be the lead chairman to tackle this measure," he added.

While in Brussels accompanying Marcos at the ASEAN-EU Commemorative Summit, House Speaker Martin Romualdez earlier said Villar was "very, very enthusiastic" in using as a "starting point" the bill "refined" by House members.

"Because he appreciates, I guess, his exposure in his family's business, and he sees how scale, how size matters when you come into capital-intensive projects and programs that actually do make money," Romualdez added.

The MIF bill was only filed on Nov. 28 by Romualdez, presidential son and Ilocos Norte Rep. Sandro Marcos, and four other lawmakers.

It became controversial for initially including pension funds as initial seed capital, that even presidential sister Sen. Imee Marcos slammed the proposal early on, citing that it could possibly turn into Malaysia's 1MDB corruption scandal which she described as a disaster.

Since then, proponents have been tweaking the bill with first being replacing funds from the Social Security System (SSS) and Government Service Insurance System (GSIS) with dividends from the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas.

"We will deal with it when it gets to the Senate kasi hindi ko na rin alam, at mahirap magkomentaryo paiba-iba 'yung mga amendments," said Sen. Marcos on Friday during a chance interview.

[Translation: We will deal with it when it gets to the Senate because I also don't know the bill and it's difficult to comment since the amendments keep on changing.]

RELATED: Lawmakers on removal of SSS, GSIS from Maharlika fund: 'Partial victory,' proof of weak proposal

Safeguards were one of the major concerns on the investment fund, aside from the timing of the bill amid the country's crippled economy.