MANILA, AUGUST 16, 2011 (STAR) By Aurea Calica - Malacañang said yesterday it would need more time to study the freedom of information (FOI) bill and thus it would not be included in the list of priority bills that President Aquino would present to Congress leaders in today’s Legislative Executive Development Advisory Council (LEDAC) meeting.

In a press briefing at the Palace, presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda also said the responsible parenthood (reproductive health) bill was still being studied. He did not give any categorical answer as to whether or not it would be among the 22 or 23 bills that the President would press Congress to pass at the soonest time possible.

“We’re expecting a healthy discussion again, it was a very fruitful discussion in the first LEDAC,” Lacierda said.

He said the decision to study further the FOI bill should not be interpreted to mean the Palace was not bent on having such a measure passed.

“The FOI is being studied, we have certain concerns, valid concerns, which we are going to raise, which have been raised by the President himself, and it’s not dead in the water. There’s a vigorous debate on the FOI, and just to give you an example, in our meeting (yesterday) morning with the President, we were precisely discussing the FOI. The President agrees with the FOI in principle but there are certain concerns which have to be addressed,” Lacierda said.

Lacierda further said there had been no problem with Aquino as “this President has been very transparent.”

“Our President is for transparency, but again, let me state their concerns. This is not the last chance – we’ve got four years and 11 months to go, there’s going to be several LEDACs along the way, let’s not put a period when there’s still a long way off,” Lacierda said.

Lacierda said some of the bills were referred back to their particular clusters for details as they were too broad and “there was greater demand for clarification, for more focused bills.”

“Some of them are amendments to existing laws, some are new bills,” Lacierda said.

Sin taxes

The restructuring of taxes on the so-called “sin” products like cigarettes and liquor is also expected to be tackled in today’s LEDAC.

However, Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. said proceedings in the House of Representatives on sin tax bills would remain suspended until he receives a report on the country’s appeal with the World Trade Organization (WTO) on domestic liquor taxation.

The WTO has ruled that local tax rates are “discriminatory” against foreign brands. The Philippines is a signatory to WTO agreements calling for the removal of tariff barriers to promote global trade.

Belmonte said he would send Batangas Rep. Hermilando Mandanas to Geneva, Switzerland to meet with WTO officials and monitor proceedings on the Philippine appeal on the WTO ruling.

“I stand by my proposal to put on hold deliberations on the excise tax rates on alcohol until we get an update on the meeting of Cong. Mandanas with WTO officials,” he said.

Mandanas chairs the ways and means committee, the panel that has jurisdiction over sin tax bills.

Belmonte recently assured local liquor producers that he would hold off hearings on alcohol tax measures.

In separate letters to the Speaker and Mandanas, business tycoons Ramon Ang of San Miguel Corp., Lucio Tan of Tanduay Distillers, Inc., Andrew Tan of Emperador Distillers, and Olivia Limpe-Aw of Distileria Limtuaco appealed for a postponement of hearings on the bills. Their companies are the biggest distillers and alcohol producers.

The four said any move by the House to consider bills seeking to restructure excise tax rates could jeopardize the appeal for the reversal of the adverse WTO ruling.

They said an important economic interest of the country was at stake, claiming that the WTO ruling “threatens the very survival of the distilled spirits manufacturing sector, including allied and downstream industries.”

They said in 2010, local distillers produced 66 million cases of distilled spirits worth P50 billion or more than $1 billion.

“Over a million families depend on our industry, which includes alcohol distillery workers, bottling factory workers, sales people, merchandisers, delivery personnel, and on upstream industries like the sugar industry,” they said.

They pointed out that local producers also provide livelihood to at least 700,000 retail store operators and thousands of junkshop owners.

The country is a signatory to WTO agreements calling for the dismantling of tariff barriers to promote global trade.

The House intends to review excise taxes on the so-called “sin” products like cigarettes and liquor to generate additional revenues for the national coffers.

Addressing his colleagues on July 25, when the second regular congressional session opened, Belmonte said the House would not impose new taxes but would instead put in place tax reforms that would increase revenues.

“The prevailing multi-tax rate classification of cigarette and alcohol products and the pegging of sin taxes to 1996 price levels have convoluted the tax system and shrunk the tax base, dampening the government’s revenue efforts and essentially depriving the public of resources which could have been used to fund the most basic of services,” he said.

“Restructuring sin taxes – in lieu of imposing new ones – will generate additional revenues which can fund the requirements of universal health care,” Belmonte said.

There are proposals in the House to reduce the present four tax rates to two and eventually to one, and base them on present price levels. There would also be an inflation-based indexation scheme. – With Jess Diaz

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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