June 22, 2024

Members of the Baguio City Council expressed reservations on House Bill  3267 or the Cordillera Autonomy Bill during their regular session on April 22.

HB 3267 seeks to establish an autonomous region in the Cordillera Administrative Region to grant the region more autonomy in governance and allow it to have greater control over its resources, development plans, and decision-making processes.

The bill was approved in the House Committee on Local Government in 2023, followed by approval in the Committee on Ways and Means in the same year. However, it is currently pending in the House oCommittee on Appropriations.

The Appropriations Committee has made amendments and is now tasked with transmitting it back to the Local Government Committee for the preparation of a committee report.

During the council session, Councilor Arthur Allad-iw said there is a need for thorough public consultation before passing the bill.

He emphasized the importance of gathering input from the people to address gaps or “gray areas”.

He suggested inviting people with alternative proposals to improve the Bill and ensure comprehensive consultation.

Councilor Jose Molintas questioned the bill’s intent to create a regional government headed by a regional governor. He claimed this might create another layer of bureaucracy and might not be supported by provincial governors who may perceive it as superseding their authority.

Instead, he proposed a coordinating body with a rotational leadership structure that allows governors to focus on their provinces’ projects and programs.

Molintas also claimed creating a regional government could require a significant financial investment that the region currently lacks the capacity to undertake.

He warned the advocates of the bill against rushing autonomy solely based on constitutional mandates without grassroots support and a well-thought-out strategy.

“If we just come up with autonomy because the constitution says so, I don’t think it will be successful. I’d like to support an autonomy bill, but it should come from the grassroots,” Molintas said.

He stressed “autonomy” means giving the region full control over its natural resources, including taxing investors within the region to benefit local development in contrast with the current situation where revenue from resources benefits areas where central offices are based.

Councilor Betty Lourdes Tabanda agreed, saying a regional government could become another layer of bureaucracy without significantly improving the current situation, especially if line agencies remain controlled by national offices.

She said a regional government might limit the functions of local governments like Baguio City instead of enhancing their autonomy.

Tabanda raised the possible “encroachment” of the powers of LGUs and asserted there is a need for a clear definition of the regional government’s scope of power.

She sought clarity on whether LGUs would need approval from the regional government for plans and budgets.

Councilor Peter Fianza’s comments focused on the perceived lack of consideration by the House bill on the implementation of the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (IPRA) with regard to the preservation of resources on ancestral land.

He said for a city like Baguio to be part of an autonomous region, there must be equal sharing of resources, opportunities, and rights among all members.

Fianza referred to recent jurisprudence that excludes Baguio City from IPRA. He cited Section 78 of the law which restricts NCIP to issue Certificates of Ancestral Land Titles in Baguio City.

He said Baguio City is excluded from the provisions of IPRA, thus raising questions about how Baguio City can be expected to participate in an autonomous region based on principles of equality when it is not treated equally under IPRA.

Fianza also expressed doubt that the national government would allow the regional government to receive a separate 40 percent share of revenue, in addition to the 40 percent already allocated to LGUs.

He suggested reviewing the Mandanas Ruling which pertains to the allocation of national taxes to LGUs.

Councilor Benny Bomogao and Vice Mayor Faustino Olowan pointed out the lack of clarity in the bill regarding taxation provisions for corporations operating within the region.

They said without clear provisions on taxes, the region may face financial challenges in the long term. They emphasized the need for provisions regarding the situs of taxation to ensure that taxes paid by businesses operating in the region stay within the region, especially after the initial 10-year assistance period.

Bomogao suggested that amendments to laws like the National Internal Revenue Code could be considered to address taxation issues specific to the autonomous regions.

Responding to concerns raised by the council members, Regional Development Council-CordilleraChairperson Thomas Kiwang said subsidies will be received by the regional government for 10 years as specified in the bill. These subsidies are intended to support the region in developing income-generating projects during the initial ten years of autonomy. These projects are aimed at creating sustainable sources of income for the region beyond the subsidy period starting from the 11th year onwards.

Kiwang said the goal of autonomy is for the region to become self-supporting and financially independent after the subsidy period ends.

He also emphasized the prospect of seamless communication and positive relations between the LGU and regional officials, all of whom are Cordillerans.

He said these relationships would be more favorable compared to interactions with officials based in Manila.

Kiwang said the creation of an autonomous region is not about adding another layer of bureaucracy but about devolving powers from the national government to the region as locals are more knowledgeable about their situation and can better manage the region.

However, he added not all powers of the national government will be devolved to the region; only specific powers listed under Section 25 of the House bill such as ancestral domain, natural resources, agriculture.

He said the devolution of control over natural resources to the regional government is beneficial as it allows for better implementation of laws like the IPRA.

Kiwang also claimed the region will still be under the supervision of the President and will not be creating a separate and independent government.

He likewise claimed establishing the autonomous region would entitle it to additional funding and resources separate from what local governments currently receive, thereby increasing the region’s budget allocation from the national government.

This will also allow the region to access a portion of the national government’s tax allocation which will provide additional financial resources to support regional development, he said.

However, Molintas argued autonomy should not be about asking for more money from the national government but about self-reliance and self-sustainability for the region, thus, it should focus on generating and managing its own resources rather than relying on financial support from the national government.

According to Kiwang, autonomy provides the region with a better chance to govern itself, although it may not be wholly independent from the national government.

On the possible diminution of a local government due to the creation of a regional government, Kiwang said the bill contains a provision ensuring that LGUs, including Baguio City, will retain their powers without any reduction in rights.

Tabanda said assurance should be made that a regional government would not diminish the functions of local government.

Kiwang said the bill states the regional government will be under national supervision by the Office of the President. He said if Baguio City becomes part of the regional government, it will benefit from the funding and resources allocated to the regional government.

He said the funding of the regional government will be used for the benefit of all component LGUs, including provinces, cities, and barangays, with the latter being the ultimate beneficiaries.

Clarence Baguilat, former Department of Environment and Natural Resources regional executive director, said there is a need for the region to have full control over its resources and policies, especially given past disagreements with national policies that did not align with the region’s needs.

He called for a review of specific provisions of the bill related to regional governance, line agency control, and financial allocation to ensure that the region can gradually move towards autonomy and have more authority over its resources and governance.

Updates on the social preparation of the autonomy proposal in 2023 and the first quarter of 2024 showed significant progress and engagement in promoting autonomy.

Milagros Rimando, president of Cordillera Alliance for Autonomy, Peace and Development Inc., said there have been 32 information, education, and communication events held across 15 municipalities, involving 4,943 participants since 2023.

Social media campaigns also reached a wide audience, with a reach of around 1.3 million individuals, 800,000 engagements, and 1,005 posts promoting autonomy. Mock plebis-cites conducted during this time showed strong support, with 83.8 percent voting “yes” for autonomy. Further, 31 manifestos were collected in favor of autonomy, reflecting community sentiment.

Rimando told the city council that no single version of the bill can satisfy everyone. She said there had been discussions with government agencies on the conduct of workshops to refine the bill based on input from stakeholders.

She said it is important to lobby and advocate for the bill at the national level, which involves the President, Vice President, Cabinet secretaries, and national media to garner support for autonomy beyond the Cordillera.

Rimando expressed gratitude to the city council for initiating discussion and inviting their participation in this important matter.

The city council called for more public consultations about the contents of the bill, reflecting a commitment to democratic processes and inclusivity in shaping the autonomy framework. – Jordan G. Habbiling