MANILA - Despite "complications" the Senate faced because of the coronavirus pandemic, its just adjourned session was "remarkably productive," Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri said Friday.
“COVID has really changed the way that we work, but I think we’ve managed it well,” said Zubiri, among three senators who contracted and survived the virus.
The Senate, which adjourned sine die on Thursday, had to shift to hybrid sessions- with some members attending in person and others via video conference- because of precautions due to the highly contagious disease.
In March, the Senate building in Pasay City had to be restricted, with several lawmakers and staffers going on self-quarantine, after a resource person who had attended a committee hearing was confirmed to be a coronavirus carrier.
Other than Zubiri, Senators Sonny Angara and Aquilino Pimentel III also got the virus and later recovered. Several Senate staffers also tested positive, and one died.
The majority leader noted that the use of videoconferencing in sessions presented challenges, including connectivity issues.
“It’s not been without problems. Sometimes connection can get bad and disrupt the flow of the session. And we’ve had to figure out and get used to entirely new ways to hold caucuses, to file bills, to arrange committee hearings," Zubiri said.
"But on the whole, I’d like to point to our performance reports as proof that the Senate’s shift to a new normal has been pretty successful," he said.
Angara also called the past session a "productive year" despite adjustments to the new normal.
"This is the Senate in the new normal- masks, teleconferencing, distancing, nearly empty public gallery- life and service to the Philippines must go on. Times are hard and getting harder and we need to give hope to those around us," he wrote in an Instagram post.
From its session in July 2019, the Senate passed 8 bills, with 2 pending the President's signature.
Notable among those the Senate passed are the Salary Standardization Law of 2019 and the reformed Sin Tax Law, which raises alcohol and tobacco taxes for use in implementing the universal health care law, Zubiri said.
The Senate also swiftly passed the Bayanihan To Heal As One Act to give President Rodrigo Duterte additional powers to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.
The chamber also approved 31 bills on third and final reading, including the contentious Anti-Terror Bill, now the subject of protests over concerns about provisions that critics fear may lead to human rights violations.
Also approved on third reading were amendments to the Organic Agriculture Act and a bill that allows the President to set the school opening beyond August 31 in times of national emergency.
Zubiri said Senate will prioritize urgent measures when session resumes in July. Among those on top priority is the Corporate Recovery and Tax Incentives for Enterprises Act (CREATE), the revised Corporate Income Tax and Incentives Reform Act (CITIRA), which offers a "5-percent income tax cut to businesses" to support their revival after losses because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There wasn’t enough time to deliberate and pass CREATE before sine die, but this is a very urgent measure that our people will need to rebuild their lives and livelihoods after COVID-19. Especially our MSME sector—owners and employees alike. So we are definitely going to prioritize CREATE when session resumes in July," he said.