President Noynoy Aquino has promised that his administration will try not to raise or impose new taxes to bridge the widening fiscal gap, which is expected to reach a record high P325 billion this year. But while not imposing new taxes (yet) to address its fiscal woes, the Aquino administration is still squeezing the people dry through unabated increases in prices and rates charged by privatized and deregulated utilities, and by getting the most out of the previous administration’s most onerous and anti-poor revenue-raising tool – the 12 percent value added tax (VAT).
By the way, did you know that the VAT, like privatization, was also a legacy of Noynoy’s late mother, President Cory Aquino? On July 25, 1987, Cory issued Executive Order (EO) No. 273, adopting the VAT. Cory issued the EO just before the 8th Congress opened, thus preempting the legislature’s constitutional power to impose taxes. The move was a ploy to swiftly implement the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) prescription to impose the VAT and ensure that the bankrupt Cory administration can raise revenues for continued debt servicing.
Today, the ever controversial tax is again in the headlines following the insistence of Aquino’s Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) chief to impose the regressive VAT on toll. If Noynoy will not intervene and order the Department of Finance (DOF) and BIR to suspend its implementation, fees charged by toll operators around the country will go up starting Monday (August 16) as the cash-strapped Aquino administration collect from motorists the VAT on toll roads.
The table below summarizes the current rates and new rates to be charged (12 percent increase, representing the VAT) by major toll roads in Luzon, based on a notice released by the Toll Regulatory Board (TRB).
Meanwhile, those using the South Luzon Expressway (SLEx) will feel the double whammy of VAT and toll hike that will raise the toll charged by its private operator, the South Luzon Tollway Corp. (SLTC). Motorists using the SLEx will see their toll almost quadruple mainly because of the new rates approved by the TRB last May.
Ironically, the principal author of the 2005 VAT law Republic Act (RA) 9337, Senator Ralph Recto, is strongly opposing the move arguing that VAT should not be imposed on a government service. Recto, who belongs to Aquino’s Liberal Party (LP) and presently chairs the Senate ways and means committee, suffered the VAT backlash and lost his reelection bid in the 2007 midterm elections, which explains his stance on the VAT on toll. Aside from Recto, another LP member, Sen. Franklin Drilon is also questioning the BIR plan because it is supposedly imposing a tax on tax. Business groups, in particular those operating in Southern Tagalog’s industrial zones, on the other hand, have warned of commodity price hikes while transport groups plying the SLEx threatened to increase fares.
While some prominent LP members are against it, the Aquino administration’s dilemma is that backing down on the BIR plan to collect the unpopular VAT on toll will further limit its already scant revenue sources, which have been perennially drained by trade liberalization, automatic debt servicing, promotion of foreign investment and export production, and onerous privatization contracts, on top of tax evasion, smuggling, and fat paychecks of high officials of the bureaucracy.
Given the persistent external pressure from the IMF for so-called fiscal consolidation and to hike the VAT rate to 15 percent, it is unlikely that Aquino’s economic team – led by ardent VAT champions and neoliberals DOF Secretary Cesar Purisima (who as Arroyo’s DOF chief helped design and lobbied for RA 9337) and Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Cayetano Paderanga (who was among the UP economists that pushed for VAT and VAT rate hike) – will advise Aquino to heed the public clamor and stop the VAT on toll. But if Aquino will push through with the VAT on toll, he risks suffering a major political blow very early in his term because of the measure’s unpopularity and severe impact on the people. Such setback can be further compounded in case the Supreme Court (SC) decides favorably on petitions filed against the VAT on toll amid growing public opposition.
Nonetheless, the pending toll hikes, whether implemented or not, further highlight the lack of real reforms that matter to the people under the Aquino administration. That Aquino is trying to widen the scope of the onerous and anti-poor VAT is proof that prospects of better and more decent living conditions for social sectors neglected by past regimes remain dim, if not dimmer.
VAT on privatized, deregulated utilities
And even if the VAT on toll is withdrawn, the continued implementation of neoliberal policies will still oppress the poor and impoverish more people. Note for instance, that in the case of SLEx, the VAT imposition is just a small portion of the enormous increase in toll that stems from infrastructure privatization, the same policy that Aquino highlighted in his State of the Nation Address (Sona). With Aquino’s promotion of so-called Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs), we expect more similar increases in the future as these are built-in mechanisms to make privatization attractive to potential investors. A case in point is the proposed MRT fare hike, which the Aquino administration is seeking in order to pay for the guaranteed debts and profits of private investors that took part in MRT’s development and ease government’s fiscal burden.
Indeed, indications show that privatization and deregulation will not only continue but will even expand under the new government. Just barely one and a half months into the much hyped Aquino administration, we have already seen oil prices and electricity rates go up. Players in the deregulated oil industry have recently raised the pump prices of diesel, kerosene and gasoline by 50 centavos to P1 per liter, with the Department of Energy (DOE), just like in the past, warning of more oil price hikes in the coming months. In addition, the Manila Electric Co. (Meralco) has again increased its generation charge by 44 centavos per kilowatt-hour (kWh). More nationwide increases in the privatized and deregulated power industry, based on petitions pending before the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC), should be expected by hapless households.
In the context of its fiscal woes, the Aquino administration welcomes these increases despite their harsh effect on consumers as they mean more VAT collections for the government. In fact, oil and electricity are the two largest sources of VAT revenues, increasing in direct proportion with rising pump prices and monthly electricity bills. From November 2005 (when RA 9337 was implemented) to December 2009, the VAT burden from oil and power has reached P239.94 billion, or more than 65.3 percent of the total revenues (P367.28 billion) generated by RA 9337.
Similarly, higher toll means higher VAT collection for the government. Under the old SLEx fees, for example, government’s VAT revenues will only range from P2.64 to P7.80 per vehicle per trip. But under the new rates approved by the TRB, the VAT burden of SLEx users will quadruple to P10.2 to P30.6. Overall, taxpayers will shoulder a tax burden of more than P12 billion annually from the VAT on toll.
No new taxes? It does not make a difference amid rising rates and prices due to deregulation and privatization, and continued imposition and expanded coverage of the 12 percent VAT. And lest we forget, Aquino’s promise of no new taxes is highly conditional on the results of its anti-smuggling and tax evasion drive which means the worst is yet to come.