POSTSCRIPT / February 16, 1999 / Tuesday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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PNB ‘screw’ account, VAT gimmick flayed

SOMEBODY high up in government must be thinking that having fooled many people many times, he can now fool all the people all the time.

The public was told through media days ago that VAT or Value Added Tax had been abolished for food purchases, especially in eateries, effective Feb. 14 in Makati and April 1 for the rest of the country.

Believing the official announcement, many couples celebrating Valentine’s Day clogged Makati eateries last Sunday—only to discover that the heart-breaking VAT was still very much around.

Somebody could not wait for April 1, or April Fool’s Day, to play a cruel joke on consumers overburdened by taxes.

Many people don’t even have enough to eat, yet we still have to tax food!

* * *

CONTRARY to government announcements, the 10-percent VAT is still added to the food bill, although we don’t see it on the receipt. It was simply built into the total printed or written on the receipt so it’s hidden from view.

To illustrate, if the total price of food served is P1,000, a 10-percent VAT (or P100 in this example) is added to make a total bill for P1,100. However, the receipt will no longer show the P100 VAT, but only the total bill of P1,100. Neat.

By banishing VAT from the receipt, the Bureau of Internal Revenue probably wanted the public to believe that the Erap Para sa Mahirap administration had abolished VAT out of the goodness of its heart.

Huwag po kayong maniwala. The tax is still there. You may not know it, you may not see it on the receipt, but you’re still paying for it.

Question: Why do they want to hide it?

* * *

THE Pahirap ni Erap does not end with this blatant misrepresentation on the VAT. Without public hearing, without reasonable notice, the toll fees on the well-traveled South Luzon Expressway have been raised by more than 400 percent.

Many commuters did not know they had driven into a trap. For instance, they were suddenly told at the exit to pay P13 instead of the usual P2.50 from Bicutan to Alabang—on top of the P30 they had paid on the Skyway segment from Villamor (Nichols) to Bicutan.

Asked why there was no public hearing before the Philippine National Construction Corp. sprung the new rates on motorists, a director of PNCC said that there was no need for that!

He had the gall to say over the radio that if there are complaints (not the usual whining in media, but formal written complaints) there could then be public hearings and the new rates reviewed (not rolled back, but reviewed).

This is the frame of mind of people in power that sets us wondering if the Erap administration is really for the mahihirap. Erap so loves the poor that he would like to see their tribe increase?

* * *

STILL on the oppressive tendencies of government… In the Senate, President Estrada’s fair-haired boy, Gen.

Panfilo Lacson, is asking that the Presidential

Anti-Organized Crime Task Force that he heads be given extraordinary powers to make warrantless arrests!

His reason is clear and simple enough. He says that his team’s anti-crime work is hampered by their having to run to court to apply for warrants every time they want to pounce on certain suspects.

Somebody should tell the impatient general that that is precisely the reason why warrants are required. The law wants to make it difficult for abusive law enforcers to harass citizens with arbitrary arrests that sometimes lead to Kuratong Baleleng-type executions.

* * *

GENERAL, that’s the way it works in civilized countries. Yet, in those enlightened societies, the requirement for search and arrest warrants has not prevented competent investigative/enforcement police units from doing a fine job.

If the police cannot operate within the law, they themselves become outlaws.

A seasoned officer, Lacson knows the rationale of warrants. Maybe he’s just advancing some excuse in case he’s asked later why they have not been catching enough big-time criminals to justify his unit’s mind-boggling intelligence budget.

Tell you what… Surely, Lacson and his boss Erap know some judges who would be willing (or dying) to accommodate the elite police force and issue warrants without much trouble. The Palace can maintain a special pond full of such jellyfish judges.

It has been easy for the administration to have the court suspend opposition officials facing charges. It should find it easier to secure court warrants against plain citizens.

* * *

DON’T look now, but the Estrada administration is also working out a scheme that would require taxpayers to file sworn statements of assets and liabilities (SAL) to show their net worth. This is in addition to their filing each year their income tax returns.

In the same way that then President Ramos reportedly had a special unit doing nothing but scouring the globe for tourist spots to visit, is it possible that President Estrada has his own creative group looking for ways to make life harder for the population?

They floated earlier the idea of casting wider the Estrada tax dragnet by taxing small businesses operating quietly in the underground economy. These include the one-man operations and family businesses that flourish informally without much government regulation.

Desperate for more taxes to fund its ambitious promises to the expectant masses, the Estrada administration now wants a closer monitoring of income by requiring everybody to file SALs. At present, the self-incriminating SAL is required only of government personnel.

* * *

THE truth is that even without new or bigger taxes, the government can raise enough funds just by improving collection and making sure the taxes collected are not stolen.

Corruption alone accounts for a drain of at least 40 percent of public funds. In a national budget of some P590 billion, 40 percent is a whopping P240 billion.

Many people resort to various devices to avoid paying taxes, not only because they do not earn enough themselves but also because they see taxes being stolen by the millions.

Indeed, why should we scrimp on expenses for our children and pay taxes that will only be pocketed by corrupt officials?

Instead of imposing new taxes, the Estrada administration should devote more time and talent to grappling with the core issue of corruption.

* * *

MALACANANG wants the National Bureau of Investigation to file bribery charges against the woman who recently delivered P3 million for an unidentified Palace official for the release of partial payment for a P200-million textbook deal.

But in the same breath, the Palace cleared the top assistants of President Estrada who were mentioned as the intended recipients.

How can they charge the woman, Maryann Maslog, with bribery without also charging the official(s) bribed? Bribery is a criminal transaction between the giver and the receiver. Without one of the two parties, how can there be bribery?

A golden opportunity to deliver a stunning message for government reform is staring Mr. Estrada in the face, yet he refuses to see it!

The President should do his sworn duty, expose the intended recipient and set the case up as an example of what he intends to do with big crooks in government. With his tender, selective handling of the bribery case, Mr. Estrada is delivering the wrong message.

* * *

AT the Kapihan yesterday at the Manila Hotel, former Senate President Jovito R. Salonga said the escrow (pronounced “screw”) agreement between the Presidential Commission on Good Government and the Philippine National Bank is so riddled with legal holes that it would not help recover the $580-million Marcos loot.

Salonga, the first PCGG chairman, assured everybody that the roomful of evidence proving that the Marcos wealth was illegally amassed was still intact.

What’s needed for conviction, he said, was for the government to be sincere and decisive—instead of being protective of the Marcoses.

As for the settlement being worked out, Salonga said such a compromise that grants immunity to the Marcoses would not be allowed both by the Swiss Supreme Court that required a Marcos conviction for the release of the $580 million and by the Philippine Supreme Court that had ruled that the compromise was illegal.

With the Marcoses rejecting any formula that does not grant them immunity from criminal suits, the impasse is expected to drag. Maybe that’s the idea.

* * *

(First published in the Philippine STAR of February 16, 1999)

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