[PHOTO -Enrile’s move drowns out Drilon’s plea]

MANILA, NOVEMBER 19, 2012 (MANILA STANDARD) 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 Malcanang’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. With Maricel Cruz, Vito Barcelo and Jonathan Fernandez

End game on sin tax up By Macon Ramos-Araneta | Posted on Nov. 19, 2012 at 12:01am

Senate vote for the bill seen today

Senator Franklin Drilon, the acting chairman of the Senate ways and means committee, said he expected senators to vote for the passage of the sin tax bill when sessions resume today.

“I am confident that our colleagues have seen and realized the importance of the reform measure to a great majority both as a health measure and as a finance bill,” said Drilon Sunday.

Drilon said he expects to finish the debates on the individuals amendments proposed by those who oppose the bill before it is sent to the Senate floor for a vote.

Drilon said his bill, which faced a thorough scrutiny during the five extended session days, will face individual amendments on Monday before its ratification.

Drilon’s committee report targets an additional P40 billion revenues from increased taxes on tobacco and alcohol products.

This is P20 billion lower than the target proposed by the Finance Department.

Earlier, Senator Ralph Recto had resigned as committee chairman after he drew flak from the Palace for proposing a bill with a much lower P15 billion collection goal.

Local tobacco companies and farmers have warned that “exorbitant” taxes would kill the industry, a view shared by Recto, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, and Senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who comes from the tobacco-producing north.

Recto called the P40-billion target “unrealistic.”

On Thursday night, President Benigno Aquino III certified the bill as urgent, allowing it to be approved on second and third reading on Monday without the usual three-day interval.

As a rule, a bill must undergo three readings on three separate days except when the President certifies a bill as urgent to meet a public calamity or a national emergency.

“We are in the final stretch. We are only one step [from] the passage of this bill,” said Drilon.

Marcos last week vowed to make amendments to the bill when sessions resume today.

Enrile and Recto are also expected to propose their own amendments.

Over the weekend, former Health secretaries asked legislators to set aside P1 billion from the extra revenue generated from sin taxes for health promotion.

Alfredo Bengzon, Alberto Romualdez Jr., Jaime Galvez-Tan, Juan Flavier, Francisco Duque III, and Esperanza Cabral said in a statement this would help Filipinos make healthier choices and adopt healthier lifestyles.

Tan, who served as Health secretary under President Fidel V. Ramos, noted that the health budget should not just focus only on treating the sick because most of the population is healthy.

“Health promotion ensures that all Filipinos can benefit from… funding [of] key programs such as tobacco control, alcohol control, road safety and sports,” he said. “The right to health is for everyone and health promotion ensures that all Filipinos have access to it.”

A study by the Health Department showed that nine out of every 10 Filipinos have at least one risk factor that could lead to non-communicable diseases.

These risk factors include tobacco use, hypertension, and obesity and could lead to life-threatening conditions that are costly to treat.

Health promotion could ease the burden of treating the ill by reducing the number of people getting sick and seeking medical attention, the former Health secretaries said.

The Philippine Medical Association, the umbrella organization of all medical societies in the country with a total membership of 70,000, called for the passage of the sin tax bill before it is too late.

“We value the health of our youth and we are confident that the passage of this bill would not just help smokers quit but also ensure that our children would not be able to afford the habit of smoking and drinking too much alcoholic beverages,” said the PMA in a statement issued Sunday.

The morbidity and mortality due to diseases related to smoking and drinking are tremendous, the group said.

“We can benefit from a healthier and cleaner air if there were [fewer] Filipinos smoking. Sadly, the poor are the ones mostly affected by smoking-related diseases,” the PMA said.

As the Senate committee of ways and means prepared to vote today, members of the Northern Alliance in the House of Representatives warned those seeking re-election that there would be a price to pay in next year’s election if they voted for higher excise taxes.

La Union Rep. Victor Ortega, the alliance president, made the statement, saying it is but natural for tobacco farmers to declare who they will support during the coming polls.

“Of course they will support those who have been considerate of their plight in making a decision on the sin tax bill,” Ortega said.

“It is but natural also for these tobacco farmers to say they will reject senatorial bets who will support a sin tax bill version that will adversely affect the farmers’ plight. On the other hand, you can expect these farmers to support candidates who sympathized with them in the fight against hefty excise tax rates,” Ortega added.

Ortega said the voting power of tobacco farmers should not be underestimated, noting that the eight major tobacco-producing provinces form a vote-rich region with at least 4.5 million voters during the last senatorial election.

In the Ilocos Region, which comprises the provinces of Ilocos Norte, Ilocos Sur, Pangasinan and La Union, there are about 300,000 tobacco farmers, Ortega said. “This could easily translate to one million votes if voting members of their families are included,” he said.

The eight major tobacco-producing provinces were Pangasinan, La Union, Ilocos Sur, Ilocos Norte, Abra, Cagayan, Isabela and Mindoro. Other provinces that produce tobacco are Mountain Province, Ifugao, Nueva Vizcaya, Quirino, Tarlac, Nueva Ecija, Capiz, Iloilo, Leyte, Cebu, Misamis Oriental, Bukidnon, Davao, Zamboanga del Sur, Maguindanao, Cotabato and Saranggani.

Nueva Vizcaya Rep. Carlos Padilla, one of the 21 congressmen who voted against the House version of the bill, said the legislation is certainly an election issue in tobacco-producing provinces. The House-approved version of the sin tax bill provides an estimated P31.28 billion in new revenue – mostly from tobacco products.

“It is inevitable that these affected sectors during the May 2013 elections will manifest their unfavorable sentiment against re-electionist senators who will support a tax bill that imposes drastic and immediate increases in the rates,” Padilla added.

A big workers group also warned lawmakers of railroading the passage of the sin tax bill, saying it could lead to mass layoffs and the loss of jobs.

The Bukluran ng Manggagawa said lawmakers should prove their independence, not only from Malacanang, but also from the International Monetary Fund, which supports more new taxes, including a levy on telecommunication services. With Maricel V. Cruz and Vito Barcelo

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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