MANILA, Philippines – Though President Rodrigo Duterte recently asked the Senate to immediately pass his tax reform bill “in full” and then joked or warned or both that it’s non-passage might affect Sen. Juan Edgardo “Sonny” Angara’s standing in the next polls, it appears that when it comes to the said measure, the Upper Chamber won’t simply rubber-stamp what the chief executive wants.
On Thursday, Sen. Joseph Victor “JV” Ejercito added his voice to those of his colleagues who think that they could not just swallow Duterte’s pet bill hook, line, and sinker.
“While I support President Rodrigo Duterte’s various programs such as infrastructure development, I cannot in my conscience support the comprehensive tax reform program being pushed by the Department of Finance (DOF) as I see its current form as pro-government, but anti-consumers,” Ejercito said in a statement.
Last May, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved on third and final reading Duterte’s first tax measure called the TRAIN (Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion) Bill.
According to the DOF, the bill would make the country’s tax system simpler, fairer, and more efficient for all Filipinos and at the same time raise the resources needed to invest in infrastructure and our people.
Why raise funds when we still have unused funds?
But Ejercito said that on the contrary, the measure would be unjust for consumers as it would increase the excise taxes of oil products, beverages containing sugar, and other commodities.
“Our economy is running well because it is consumer-driven. That is why am worried that the proposed taxes on petroleum and sweetened beverages might drastically affect our economy. If prices of commodities increase, this will have an adverse impact to the economy,” he said.
Also, the senator said he could not see a logical basis in the bill’s aim of raising more funds when billions of pesos in government appropriations remain unutilized.
“I cannot also see its intent to raise about 200-Billion pesos when the government still has almost 600-Billion unused appropriations in 2016,” said Ejercito.
Angara, chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, earlier hinted that he won’t echo the President’s desire. The senator didn’t clap when Duterte, during his State of the Nation Address (SONA) last Monday, asked legislators to swiftly pass his priority bill.
The chief executive sensed Angara’s reluctance and said, “Ayaw man magpalakpak, ah. Pati si ano wala. They are not clapping. Si Angara ayaw din mag-clap. Bantay ka lang sa eleksyon, tingnan mo.”
[You don’t want to clap. Including this person. They are not clapping. Angara doesn’t want to clap. Watch what will happen in the elections, just you see.]
Ready to resign
While Angara dismissed Duterte’s remark as a joke, he admitted that he somehow felt threatened when the President mentioned about elections.
“Alam mo naman si Presidente pabiro lagi…Baka if we don’t pass it in full, maybe we won’t be in the good graces of this administration. It is what it is,” the senator told media after Duterte’s SONA.
Would Angara be ready to resign as chair of the Senate ways and means panel if he and Duterte couldn’t see eye to eye?
“If they’re not happy with the version (we’re) coming up with, we’re willing to resign our position. Hindi naman tayo kapit-tuko sa position [We don’t cling to the position],” he said last Monday.
Angara found an ally in Sen. Loren Legarda. On Tuesday, Legarda said it wasn’t the Senate committee chair’s fault why the TRAIN Bill wasn’t moving at the Upper Chamber as fast as Duterte wanted.
“It’s not Sonny’s job singly, or it’s not his fault at all, that we seem slow. And we are not slow. He’s been hearing it. So I’m here to defend and to support the chair,” Legarda said during a tax hearing at the Senate.
Why impose same tax rates on soft drinks, milk?
On Thursday, after a caucus of the Senate majority, Angara told reporters it won’t be possible for the Upper Chamber to pass the full version of the bill being endorsed by the President as senators worry about the possible negative effects to consumers of raising excise taxes of oil products.
Angara added that he and other senators thought that it was inappropriate to impose a P10 per liter tax on sugar-sweetened beverages because the basis should be the level or degree of sweetness added to a drink and not the sugar volume in a product.
The panel chair also questioned why the bill would impose similar tax rates on soft drink and milk products when the latter is healthier than the former.
Like Ejercito, Legarda asked during the caucus why the Duterte administration wanted to raise more funds via the tax bill when it still has underspent allocations worth P500 billion.
Senate needs to maintain independence
On the same day, the Liberal Party (LP) also took up the cudgels for Angara and issued a statement stressing that the Senate is an independent body and thus could not be under the sway of a supposedly co-equal branch.
“The Senate needs to fulfill its duty to maintain its independence and to provide a check and balance to government,” the LP said.
“On the government’s proposed tax measures, we commend our colleagues in the Senate, particularly Senator Sonny Angara, for standing firmly with the findings of the Committee on Ways and Means, which he chairs,” it said.
Moreover, the party chaired by Vice President Leni Robredo said that the government would “respect this separation of powers as its officials push for their agenda, including tax reforms.”
“We also urge our colleagues to remain steadfast in carrying out their respective duties and responsibilities amid political pressure. As the people’s representatives, we craft and shepherd policies with their interest in mind,” the LP added.