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Open sin tax hearings to public – advocates

To avoid 'killer insertions,' Congress should open the bicameral hearings that will be held to finalize a law on sin taxes, advocates say

(Presentation by Dr Tony Dans)

MANILA, Philippines – Worried that the sin tax measure will be further watered down, advocates of the reform measure are calling on Congress to defy tradition and open the bicameral conference meetings to the public.

Senate and the House of Representatives are expected to assign this week members of the bicameral conference committee who will consolidate the different versions of the two legislative chambers. Advocates said they have information that the bicam will have its first meeting on Friday, November 30.

“We need to make it open so we will prevent killer insertions during the bicam, knowing that the bicam is shrouded in secrecy,” said Anthony Leachon, Department of Health consultant on non-communicable diseases, one of the most active advocates for the sin tax measure.

“Since this is the most lobbied legislation, it’s about time that the public and the even the health champions should know what’s going on during the meetings,” Leachon added.

Leachon recalled what happened to the recently signed Cybercrime law, where controversial provisions were inserted during the bicameral conference committee meetings. Among other protested provisions, media discovered too late that the bicam increased the penalty for libel online.

Exclude them

Leachon also said they don’t want Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile and Senators Ralph Recto, Ferdinand Marcos Jr, Francis Escudero, and Joker Arroyo to become members of the bicam on the sin tax bill.

Arroyo and Escudero voted no to the Senate’s final version of the bill. On the other hand, Enrile, Recto and Marcos introduced various amendments to the Senate version.

On November 20, voting 15-2, the sin tax reform bill hurdled the Senate, bringing the measure that took 15 years in the making a step closer to becoming a law.

The approved Senate bill raised the excise taxes on so-called sin products — tobacco and alcohol — and targetted additional revenues of P39.5 billion for government in the first year, slightly lower than the P40-billion “floor” targeted by the Aquino administration. The decline in expected revenues came about after senators introduced amendments to the bill.

The Senate’s approved version is higher than the P30-billion amount targetted in the sin tax bill approved by the House of Representatives.

The sin tax measure is one of the priority measures of President Benigno Aquino III. He wants to use the additional revenue from the sin tax measure to fund his universal health care program.

It’s a health measure

Prof Antonio Dans of the University of the Philippines College of Medicine also said he’s concerned that Congress seems to be forgetting the real intent of the bill.

“What we are losing in the current debate is the fact that the sin tax is a health meausre and only secondarily a revenue measure,” said Dans.

Dans disapproves of the lower tax on cigarettes, adjusted by the Senate from P32 per pack to P26 per pack by 2017. Under the Senate version, tax on cigarettes becomes unitary by 2017.

Based on the estimates of Dans, a total of 66,000 lives will be saved every year if the tax per pack amounts to P32, which is in the original version of Sen Frank Drilon. Bringing it down to P26 means only 41,000 lives will be saved, he said.

Dans said 2,500 deaths are prevented every year for every P1 tax on top of the current rats.

“At the bicameral meeting, we need to bring it up to P32 billion again,” said Dans.

Dans said the bicam has to delete the “sunset provision” that cuts automatic funding on health after 2016 – coincidentally when President Benigno Aquino III steps down. Under the Senate version, additional revenue from sin tax will go to the treasury by 2017.

“We should make sure that it will actually be allocated in perpetuity, that it will not only last during the term of President Aquino,” said Dans.  – Rappler.com