I’M INCLINED TO understand the heated discussions on the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law as one that’s reducible to the idea of autonomy. It’s known by its other names, such as self­rule, self­government, self­ determination, and it comes in varying degrees. I want to take the discussions as addressing, ultimately or proximately, the core question: what degree of autonomy shall the Philippine state grant the Bangsamoro?

But why should the state grant this autonomy, in the first place? The easy answer is, because the 1987 Constitution says so, in clear and unequivocal terms. For the long answer, you
would need to do some reading on the claim and struggle of the Bangsamoro people for autonomy based on legal, political, historical, and other grounds. I choose to defer to the better wisdom of the framers of the Constitution.

The preference by the framers for autonomy is evident in the set of provisions comprising one whole Article exclusively dedicated to local government, autonomous regions and autonomy. Crafted on the heels of the EDSA revolution, the Constitution was complemented by the prevailing mood to provide the basis for radical change.

Two measures came into law in easy succession that altered the landscape of governance. Signed into law on Aug. 1, 1989, was the Organic Act for the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), which was billed as a “springboard to federalism” (it was amended in March 2001 to expand the Act itself). Soon to follow was the Local Government Code (LGC) of 1991, which was signed into law on Oct. 10, 1991, and hailed as a “revolutionary piece of legislation.”

Skeptics who warned that these laws would leave in their wake a nation dismembered have not seen the Basic Law yet. The devil is in the degree of autonomy. As these two laws serve to illustrate, that degree is measured in terms of vested or shared power.

The most radical feature of the LGC, for example, is the devolution to local government units (LGUs) of power, functions, services and facilities previously held and delivered by national government agencies. Where pre­LGC policies displayed ambivalence, hesitation and doubt in devolving certain functions and services to LGUs, the LGC was bolder, clear and categorical in providing for a massive transfer of mandate, muscle and money to local jurisdictions.

The same LGC provisions shall cover ARMM areas until the autonomous government has come out with its own local government code. It did come out years later with its own LGC
for ARMM, with a surprising twist: it proved to be a verbatim copy of the national LGC except for the necessary changes and the deletion of the list of devolved basic services and facilities by level of LGU, which has the effect of confining the devolution at the level of the regional government.

The powers of government vested in ARMM under its Organic Act suffer in comparison with the powers sought through the Basic Law for the Bangsamoro. The Organic Act, for instance, limits the scope of the power of ARMM to legislate in such a way as to exclude the following matters:

  1. Foreign affairs
  2. National defense and security
  3. Postal service
  4. Coinage and fiscal monetary policies
  5. Administration of justice
  6. Quarantine
  7. Customs and Tariff
  8. Citizenship
  9. Naturalization, Immigration and Deportation
  10. General Auditing
  11. National Elections
  12. Maritime, Land and Air Transportation and Communications
  13. Patents, Trademarks, Trade names and Copyright
  14. Foreign Trade

Ingeniously, the Basic Law draws up a long list of government powers and groups these into three categories, namely:

  • Reserved powers ­­ those exercised by the “Central Government,” to include the first nine items on the list right above?
  • Concurrent powers ­­ those shared between the Central and Bangsamoro governments, such as the rest of the items starting with No. 10 on the same list above, plus such other items that include civil service? coast guard? custom and tariff? administration of justice? funding for the maintenance of national roads, bridges, and irrigation systems? disaster risk reduction and management? public order and safety.
  • Exclusive Powers ­­ those that pertain to the Bangsamoro government, or the equivalent of the power, functions, services and facilities devolved under the LGC, including those given to ARMM under the Organic Act? plus a long list more!

On these are where the big issues lie.

Autonomy applies crucially to fiscal matters. The taxing powers of LGUs under the LGC have hardly improved even as their mandates have increased. Hence LGU share in the national revenue collections, or the Internal Revenue Allotment (IRA), has to increase. From P10 billion in 1991, the combined IRA of all LGUs grew to P47 billion in 1994, then to P342 billion in 2014.

ARMM­budgeted revenue, largely transfers from the national government through the General Appropriations Act (GAA), amounted to P20.5 billion in 2014. The block grant for the Bangsamoro has been estimated by the Department of Budget and Management at P25.2 billion for 2015 – or a P4.7 increase from the ARMM-GAA budget for 2014. Over a period of six years from 2015 to 2020, the block grant is projected to reach a total of P211.8 billion.

The Basic Law proposes to broaden the taxing powers of the Bangsamoro by allowing it to levy taxes on items currently excluded under the Organic Act, such as documentary stamp tax, income tax levied on banks and financial institutions, excise taxes on certain articles, etc.

There is a lot more in the Basic Law that proposes to give real meaning to genuine autonomy. When PNoy publicly endorsed the Basic Law document to Congress sometime in September last year, he virtually pushed for its approval as an administration bill. It’s misleading to call it any other way.

The question then, to be more specific, is what degree of autonomy is the Congress willing to allow? And how much less is the Moro Islamic Liberation Front willing to take?

Mario M. Galang is a senior fellow of Action for Economic Reforms and a development and governance specialist.