Sona 2013: Silent on water tax, all-out on LRT/MRT fare hike

Two things stood out in the State of the Nation Address (Sona) that reaffirmed the big business and neoliberal bias of President Benigno Aquino III. First, which stood out because of its conspicuous absence in the Sona, is the issue of passed on income taxes and other expenses by Manila Water and Maynilad. Second is the all-out push by Aquino to hike the fares in LRT and MRT, which is tied to the regime’s public-private partnership (PPP) or privatization program.

Incidentally, both involve two influential business interests that are widely seen to have close ties with the Aquino administration – the Ayala family and the group of Manny V. Pangilinan (MVP). The Ayalas control Manila Water while the MVP group controls Maynilad. These big business interests have also set up the Light Rail Manila Consortium, one of the bidders in the scheduled privatization of LRT 1 this month.

Double standards

Aquino’s evasion of the water income tax issue underscores the double standards of his daang matuwid and anti-corruption rhetoric, which as usual was again prominent in his speech. In his Sona, the President praised the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) for instituting reforms in the agency. It will be recalled that in his first Sona, Aquino hit the water agency for hefty bonuses enjoyed by its officials. Such anomaly has already been addressed, said Aquino, citing the almost P2-billion income of MWSS last year from a P34-million deficit in 2010. He also praised Sec. Rogelio Singson, who used to be president and CEO of Maynilad, for addressing corruption in the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH).

But while extolling the MWSS and Singson for the supposed good governance reforms in their agencies, Aquino did not mention the onerous Concession Agreement that involved MWSS and Singson and made consumers pay for the income taxes, corporate donations, advertisements and other expenses of Maynilad and Manila Water. More importantly, the President said nothing on what he intends to do with the said anomalous PPP contract. Did Sec. Rene Almendras, who as former Manila Water president was also involved in implementing the controversial Concession Agreement had a hand in determining the content of the Sona in his capacity as Secretary to the Cabinet?

The presence of former top executives of the Ayalas and MVP in key Cabinet positions and the PPP as centerpiece economic program of the Aquino administration explain the deliberate silence of the President on the controversy hounding Manila Water and Maynilad. While the MWSS-Regulatory Office is disputing the private water concessionaires on the issue of income taxes and other pass-on charges, it is still Malacañang that will be decisive ultimately.

Through their paid ads weeks before the Sona, Manila Water and Maynilad have warned not only the regulators but Malacañang itself on the supposed sanctity of privatization contracts. They know that the privatization of MWSS is regarded as the barometer of PPP in the Philippines and a decision detrimental to the water concessionaires (and favorable to the consumers) will seriously undermine the PPP initiatives of Aquino. Aquino’s refusal to issue a categorical statement backing the widespread public clamor against the questionable charges of Manila Water and Maynilad in his Sona speaks volumes about where the President’s loyalty lies. Malacañang apparently does not want to upset the Ayalas and the MVP group which have been among the most aggressive in securing PPP contracts from government.

Fare hike and privatization

While Aquino was silent on the abusive pricing of Manila Water and Maynilad and the oppressiveness of the Concession Agreement, the President was clear in his relentless push to increase the fares in LRT and MRT. Like the MWSS, the LRT and MRT fare hike was also among the controversial issues raised by Aquino in his first Sona.

Reiterating his position in 2010, Aquino claimed that increasing the LRT and MRT fares to approximate air conditioned bus fares is justified. He raised the argument repeatedly pointed out by Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) officials – that government is supposedly subsidizing P25 (LRT) to P45 (MRT). Freeing up such subsidies means more funds for social services that will benefit the entire country and not only the Metro Manila commuters, argued the President. The DOTC has earlier announced that it will implement a P10-fare hike to be implemented in two tranches.

But it has been pointed out that the supposed subsidies, in the case of MRT, actually go to service debts arising from the guaranteed profits and sovereign guarantees given by government to the train system’s former private operators. LRT lines, on the other hand, are generating enough revenues to cover its maintenance and operation, although debts also bloat the total costs. Debts, however, should not be passed on to commuters as mass transportation is a public investment that generates economic and social gains.

Aquino and his transportation officials are not saying it, but the real reason behind the persistent drive to raise LRT and MRT fares is the government’s grand PPP program for Metro Manila’s light rail system. It will start with the P60.63-billion LRT 1 extension and privatization, the biggest PPP project so far of the administration. Increasing the fares would demonstrate government’s resolve and ability to regularly adjust fares, despite its unpopularity, to make the system profitable as planned in the draft 35-year Concession Agreement for LRT 1.

The said LRT 1 Concession Agreement is as onerous as the MWSS Concession Agreement. Its latest draft (as of June 27) still contains the so-called regulatory risk guarantee. Section 20.4.a of the draft agreement allows the private LRT 1 operator to secure “deficit payment” from government (i.e., taxpayers) when the approved fare is lower than the “notional fare”. The notional fare is a pre-determined fare level set out in the Concession Agreement that will ensure the commercial viability of LRT 1 and the profits of its private operator. This effectively deregulates the setting of fares and renders meaningless any intervention from Congress, the courts and other regulatory agencies.

Aside from the Ayala-MVP group, other LRT 1 bidders are presidential Uncle Danding Cojuangco’s SMC Infra Resources Inc.; the Consunjis’ DMCI Holdings Inc., which also lists Japanese giant Marubeni Corp. as one of its partners; and the MTD Samsung Consortium of Malaysia and South Korea.

Aquino packaged his Sona as the Sona of the people. He claimed that inclusive growth is behind every initiative of his administration. The past three years say otherwise. His silence on the Manila Water and Maynilad controversy, his all-out push for LRT and MRT fare hike, his rabid promotion of neoliberal privatization, all say otherwise. (END)

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2 thoughts on “Sona 2013: Silent on water tax, all-out on LRT/MRT fare hike

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