Senate sidesteps Sin tax bill for RH Bill

By Macon Ramos-Araneta

Senators voted Monday to take up amendments to the long-delayed reproductive health bill before deciding on the sin tax bill, which President Benigno Aquino III has certified as urgent.

In an unexpected move during Monday’s session, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile moved to tackle the RH bill first after he was accused of delaying its passage.

“To put an end to all these baseless accusations… I am ready to present my amendments if the chamber will allow me,” he said. Enrile’s motion was carried 11-3, despite the pleas of Senator Franklin Drilon, who had committed to passing the sin tax bill Monday after the President had certified it as urgent on Thursday night.

“I would plead to everyone to give us an opportunity to vote on the sin tax… We just want to put this aside so that when we debate on the budget starting tomorrow (Tuesday), we know how much will go to the unfunded portion of the budget,” Drilon said.

Earlier, Drilon had called a 90-minute caucus to reconcile the conflicting stands of the senators on the sin tax bill, which aims to raise P40 billion in new revenues a year by raising taxes on cigarettes and alcoholic beverages.

Emerging from the caucus, Drilon announced in the plenary that they had agreed to a P40-billion target from the higher taxes.

He added that the senators agreed to “an equitable sharing” of the tax burden, with cigarettes comprising 60 percent and alcohol the remaining 40 percent, which he said was based on historical data.

It has also agreed in the caucus that to protect local tobacco farmers, all manufacturers and sellers of cigarettes in the country must get 20 percent of their raw material from local farms.

Commenting on the caucus that aimed to speed up the bill’s approval, Senator Joker Arroyo objected to the senators jumping to do Malacañang’s bidding.

He added that the sin tax bill was not a health measure, as the administration claimed, but a revenue bill.

Senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who has long opposed the sin tax bill, said he was persuaded to accept the P40 billion figure merely as a target, but warned that any miscalculations would be ruinous to the tobacco industry.

After hearing Drilon’s plea, Enrile said he had no intention to delay the discussion of the sin tax bill and assured the senator that it would take him “no more than 20 minutes” to present 17 amendments to the RH bill.

But Enrile ended up taking up two-and-a-half hours to present the first six of his amendments, then asked for a break due to exhaustion.

Earlier, Senate Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III, an anti-RH advocate like Enrile, objected to taking up the bill because it was not on the agenda.

Enrile then insisted on a vote on his motion. Only Sotto, Drilon and Senator Teofisto Guingona III opposed Enrile’s motion. Senator Pia Cayetano, the sponsor of the RH bill, had earlier accused Enrile and Sotto of purposely delaying the progress of her bill, a charge that Enrile denied.

In insisting that they hear amendments to the RH bill first, Enrile said he wanted to remove the perception that he was blocking its passage.

While the Senate delayed a decision on the sin tax bill, the chairman of the House committee of ways and means said he was ready to defend the House version of the bill, which targets a lower P30 billion in revenues and which imposes a much heavier tax burden on cigarette companies.

Davao City Rep. Isidro Ungab, the panel chairman, maintained that the sin tax bill was intended not only to raise revenues for the government but also as a health measure.

The higher excise tax on cigarettes and alcohol would be a good measure to control smoking and excessive drinking, Ungab said.

Once the Senate passes its version of the sin tax reform bill, a bicameral body will be formed to reconcile the conflicting provisions of the House and Senate versions of the measure.

Isabela Rep. Rodolfo Albano said the government should provide an alternative source of livelihood for millions of tobacco farmers and workers in the alcohol industry who would be hurt by the new sin taxes.

Albano, former House minority leader, also reminded legislators that the voting on the tax reform bill would be an important issue during the May 2013 elections.

“Certainly, this is the position of tobacco farmers that any bill that would affect the livelihood of tobacco farmers will be taken as an issue against those lawmakers supporting such a bill,” Albano said.

Also on Monday, more than 200 workers staged a rally at the Finance Department and the Senate denouncing the proposed sin taxes. Bukluran ng Manggagawang Pilipino national president Leody de Guzman said the Aquino government was trying to railroad the passage of new taxes that could result in mass layoffs.

‘What the people needs is a new system of taxation that shifts the tax burden from the majority poor to the affluent elite”, he said.

Some 2,000 tobacco workers belonging to the People’s Coalition Against Regressive Taxation, meanwhile, marched from Morayta to Mendiola Bridge in Manila to voice out their opposition to the sin tax bill.

The group called on President Aquino to certify as urgent bills that have a direct, definite and positive effect on their lives and livelihood, unlike the “hated” sin tax bill.