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Folly

It is not unusual for bureaucrats to protect their behinds by blaming contractors for screw-ups that happen. In the case of the decrepit MRT-3 system, where service seems to breakdown with increasing intermittence, it is abundantly clear that the bureaucrats are the problem. They aggravate what is already wrong with the system.

DOTr undersecretary for rail Cesar Chavez has a clear agenda. He wants to cancel the current maintenance service provider’s contract. He wants that service provider replaced midstream and the contract awarded to another favored company – impractical as that might be.

To get his way, Chavez withheld monthly payments for service provider Busan Universal Rail Inc. (BURI) – surely a method to ensure failure.

Despite the delayed payments, BURI soldiered on to fulfill its part of the bargain. The engineers and even the general manager of MRT-3 agreed that insofar as the daily maintenance and repair component of the contract is concerned, BURI has done its job against the odds. It has kept nearly all the old trains in service. They find no reason to cancel the service contract.

Apart from the daily maintenance of the trains, something akin to pushing a rock up a hill because of the systemic problems plaguing this system, there are two other components in the service contract that need to be funded: the total replacement of the signaling system and the general overhauling of the 43 light rail vehicles in service.

Having failed to convince his bosses to cancel the BURI contract on the basis of its daily maintenance record, Chavez is now withholding funding for the two other components of the contract. By doing so, he inflicts cruel and unusual punishment on the half-a-million commuters using this line.

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BURI is in talks with Bombardier, supplier of the original signaling system, for the procurement of a more updated system. Updating the signaling system will enable MRT-3 to actually operate those white elephants Jun Abaya procured from Dalian. When the Abaya trains actually become functional, it will be possible to pull out the old trains from the service line for overhauling.

But with Chavez choking the funding, nothing could be done. No new signaling system could be procured. The Abaya trains will deteriorate in storage for years. MRT-3 will continue breaking down without mercy.

Right now, the DOTr needs to move forward with a fixed-block design for the signaling system that will allow the Abaya trains to actually work. But Chavez is obsessed with contract cancellation rather than procurement.

Under these conditions, commuters will be condemned to suffer.

Freedom

Unless government pushes things to absurd lengths and criminalizes tobacco use, smokers should be a tolerated lot. Otherwise, the country’s tobacco industry will face extinction and the sectors dependent on the industry threatened with an economic calamity.

There are two existing laws that have been quite effective in regulating tobacco use as well as meeting our fiscal goals.

RA 9211 or the Tobacco Regulation Act already bans smoking in public places, prohibits cigarette advertising and criminalizes sale of tobacco products to minors. RA 10351 or the updated Sin Tax Law imposes punitive excise taxes on tobacco products.

Excise taxes on tobacco and liquor products yielded P159.36 billion in 2016 for government coffers.  This year, the “sin taxes” will yield P173.19 billion. Of that amount, used to fund improvements in our health services, tobacco excise taxes alone will account to P120.66 billion.

Next January, excise tax on tobacco will increase to P31.2 per pack. There are those who wish to see it doubled.

While revenue yield increased, excise taxes and existing regulations combined to dramatically bring down total tobacco use from a peak of 5.5 billion packs to only 4 billion packs. But there is marginal utility to regulating tobacco use. Increased restrictions could kill the goose that lays golden eggs for government. If no one smokes, government collects nothing.

Recently, government issued Executive Order 26 that further tightens restrictions already in the Tobacco Regulations Act.  By concentrating on restrictions and without mention of measures to provide smokers space, the Order opens the door to overdoing things.

For instance, while smoking is allowed in designated smoking areas (DSAs), there is no provision for businesses to create such areas. Because EO 26 encourages local government units to pass their own ordinances to achieve the goals of limiting tobacco use, some localities have gone overboard. Agusan and Bataan have totally banned smoking, with or without DSAs. Some municipalities have threatened businesses with cancellations of their permits if they sell cigarettes.

Anti-smoking activists surely have health science on their side. Unrestrained by other economic considerations, they could turn into zealots.  If the zealotry grows, it could dent our tourism and entertainment industries.

Those who smoke, even against better medical judgment, are entitled to their space unless the vice is declared illegal. They should be provided that space provided they do not cause harm to non-smokers. EO 26 must mandate protection of that space to ensure that local governments do not overshoot the purposes of the regulation.

Otherwise, we must begin investing in a costly program to shift our tobacco farmers away from the crop. There are whole provinces nearly completely dependent on the cultivation of tobacco.

Government must also be prepared to lose the hefty revenue flow from “sin taxes” if it wants to enforce a regime of abstinence on our people. The abstinence, however, must be a declared policy.

Some lifestyle choices might be unpleasant to others. But those choices, unless foreclosed, must be respected.

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