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Senator Franklin Drilon has his hands full chairing two powerful committees –  finance and ways and means.

As head of the finance committee, he has the urgent task of swiftly steering to passage the 2013 General Appropriations bill with a little over a month to go before the Senate shifts to campaign mode for next year’s midterm elections.

And with his new role as acting chairman of the Committee on Ways and Means, he has the responsibility of coming up with a fair measure that would impose excise tax rate increases on tobacco and alcohol products.

These tasks are overwhelming even for a veteran legislator like Drilon.

Thus, it should not surprise spectators when during the initial debates on the excise tax bill, Drilon had a hard time keeping up with his colleagues. It was obvious that he did not have the time nor the patience to pore over the voluminous documents about the issue, unlike his predecessor, Sen. Ralph Recto.

During hearings on the tax bill, Recto was ready with tough, probing questions on the proposal of the Department of Finance (DOF) to generate P60 billion in additional revenues by imposing hefty tax hikes of up to 1,000 percent on low-grade cigarettes and alcohol products. As a result of Recto’s extensive research and  because of thorough staff work , he was able to expose the myth of the DOF proposal. Recto uncovered the P60 billion tax goal as a myth. In various revenue runs done by the DOF itself, the best they could come up with was not P60 billion, but only around P40 billion, and in a worst-case scenario, only P23 billion. Apparently, this was the reason why DOF  officials eventually relented and said that they were willing to compromise and  a P40 billion revenue goal was acceptable to  them.

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In contrast, last Monday’s start of the plenary debates put Drilon on the hotspot fielding queries from colleagues and what transpired exposed  his lack of knowledge about the proposed excise tax hikes. At almost every turn, he would consult with  Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) commissioner Kim Henares and Finance undersecretary Jeremias Paul about the most basic questions regarding his substitute bill. When stumped, he repeatedly responded with general  statements about the proposal being a health measure, bereft of details to explain his position before his colleagues.

It did not help Drilon that both Henares and Paul appeared to be also grasping at straws in justifying the proposal. In one exchange, Senator Joker Arroyo wondered whether Drilon got his point at all.

Drilon was also vague and inconsistent in responding to Lacson’s interpellation. Lacson repeatedly pointed out that it was “a no-brainer”  that cigarette consumption would go down as a result of  high taxes, which in turn would lead to a decline in the sales volumes of manufacturers, and thus, less revenues.

But Drilon kept on insisting that the experience in other jurisdictions “would not lead to that conclusion” although he did not mention which “jurisdiction” or country he was referring to, nor did he cite any case study or example.

The incoherence of his tax proposal became evident when he added that “even assuming (that revenues will decline), the position of the sponsor is that we should be willing to take that risk if it will result in less people smoking.”

Isn’t this inconsistent? What’s the point of setting a revenue goal if Drilon is willing to sacrifice it in exchange for  less Filipinos buying cigarettes? If he’s willing to take the risk of declining revenues just so less people would stop smoking, then why was Recto’s proposal of  collecting an additional P15 billion revenues from sin taxes unacceptable? If Drilon’s  ultimate goal is to stop Filipinos from smoking,  then why not just ban cigarettes altogether?

Drilon’s lame response betrays the fallacy of the  tax bill spoon-fed to him by the DOF.  Drilon wants to tax cigarettes so high  to discourage Filipinos from smoking, yet he wants more cigarettes to be sold in order to collect more taxes and raise more revenues for the government’s health care program. 

It is obvious that chairing two powerful committees is weighing Drilon down.  What is deplorable is that because of the limited time, inevitably he will be rushing to have both measures approved, with almost certain poor results.

What quality can be expected of a tax bill that Drilon has already said should be approved by Nov. 19? That gives the Senate one week to approve a measure for which no support has been given by way of detailed computations.

It also means that there will be very little meaningful debates and analysis of the departments’ budgets. No wonder so much money is lost to corruption and half-baked projects. But the 2013 budget is exceedingly important because next year is an election year. Care should be spent by the people’s elected representatives to make sure that the monies are safeguarded and spent for their welfare, not diverted to bankroll partisan activities in aid of election.


Propriety and delicadeza

The long–standing battle between former Philippine Ambassador to Mexico Francisco “Paqui” Ortigas III and his estranged wife Susana Madrigal Bayot-Ortigas has since opened personal and sordid details of the lives of both parties. The most crucial part, however, is just getting started.

Recent developments of the legal separation case of Ortigas and Madrigal showed that the Ambassador filed an Ad Cautelam Motion to inhibit Judge Liza Marie Picardal-Tecson of the Makati RTC Branch 144. Tecson serves as the presiding judge for the petition of legal separation filed by Susana. This motion by Paqui signals for moral judgment.

As a briefer, the inhibition sought  from Judge Tecson traces its roots from the fact that the judge’s husband, lawyer Constantine “Cons” Tecson is a former CVC Law associate. And already known to many, CVC Law is the very same firm representing Susana.  Paqui’s suspicions are further aggravated by the fact that Cons was a school blockmate of lawyer Thea Daep, the CVC Law partner handling Susana’s case.

Exercising propriety and delicadeza is now brought to the fore and Judge Tecson should spare her name from this high-profile case. From a moral standpoint, her husband’s connection with CVC Law firm seriously compromises both her and the Makati court’s impartiality and integrity. Meanwhile, Susana, who objected to the motion for inhibition, argued that Judge Tecson has no reason to inhibit herself for it was the judge’s husband and not her who is a former CVC Law associate.

For others, such may serve as a valid argument, but for the sake of decency or decorum, this becomes problematic. Furthermore, will this be enough to address the issue of public perception and the conflict of interest?

We’ve witnessed many examples in the past wherein presiding judges and justices have immediately inhibited themselves from continuing to handle a case with nary a question nor explanation. But why is this now so important for one to be willing to risk hard earned integrity and respect?

Since the beginning, the controversial case has been hammered by one party to another—supposedly a useful sign for Judge Tecson to refuse handling the case. But let’s wait for the impartial outcome.

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