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Senators for sale?/Stumbling on coal

To think that the congressmen-impeachers of Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno already were on a roll. In the past two weeks they were able to make a Supreme Court justice and a high officer testify for them. Justice Teresita Leonardo de Castro claimed that her Chief habitually decides by herself instead of deferring to the collegial SC, like in the formation of a new field office. Court Administrator Midas Marquez alleged habitual delays as well, in Sereno’s transfer of the Maute terrorist trials from Marawi to Manila and the release of retired judges’ pensions. With that, the House of Reps hearing on Sereno recovered from initial  televised discoveries that accuser-lawyer Larry Gadon had no personal knowledge of his accusations after all. Thence, the House committee on justice would determine if Sereno’s lapses amounted to betrayal of public trust or other high crimes, thus impeachable.

But then Gadon had to ruin things. From out of the blue, he blurted that a rich oligarch was preparing to pay senator-judges P200 million each to acquit Sereno in a trial. The amount is incredible to save one person’s neck – P1.8 billion – as it would take nine “bribed” senators to exonerate. The claim is as incredible. It obviously intends to condition the public to think that Sereno would be cleared only because money talked. Gadon did not identify his oligarch, and will not need to if his propaganda succeeds. Is there an oligarch capable of matching the government’s resources? It is said that the past Aquino admin paid at least P100 million in pork barrels, for a total of P2.1 billion, to 21 senators who convicted then-Chief Justice Renato Corona. Following Gadon’s line, it would be more likely for the government to pay P200 million this time to each of at least 16 senators, for a total of P3.2 billion, to convict.

The congressmen saw through Gadon’s propaganda. It taints the impeachment process, from evaluation of charges and consequent prosecution by the House of Reps, then trial by the Senate. Gadon was told to shut his trap. Even congressmen who obviously are after Sereno denounced him. He was given till this weekend to apologize or else.

Next week promises more excitement. Three more justices reportedly will testify against Sereno. Impeachment is more political than judicial. People will be watching closely on national television whether the justices truly have high crimes to impute on Sereno, or if they are only out to curry favors with the admin. Their mere appearance sets precedent, legal luminaries note. In future, the House committee on justice routinely will subpoena justices in any one of their impeachments. Any one of the testifying justices can be appointed Chief if Sereno is removed, the legal beagles add. But at what expense to the Supreme Court?

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The Duterte admin’s TRAIN is stuck on a pile of coal. Before that, the Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion was chugging smoothly. Then at the last minute some senators inserted a rider to raise the tax on coal 3,000 percent in three years. Resistant, congressmen say it would push electricity rates up since 80 percent of coal supply fuels power plants. Cement costs too would soar, as all makers use coal. Inflation would rise and construction fall, resulting in joblessness. The aim of the TRAIN – soak the rich to un-tax wage earners below P250,000 a year – would be defeated. For, no work means no tax-free income to enjoy. The bicameral conference committee of the Senate and House of Reps must clear the rubble to get the TRAIN in before yearend.

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To be sure, coal is not the TRAIN’s only block. There’s also the new P3-per-liter excise tax on diesel and bunker oil. But Congress has devised exemptions for jitneys and small fishing boats that run on diesel, to avert transport and food rate spikes. Still electricity costs would rise, especially in small islands that depend on diesel generators.

What makes coal contentious is that there’s no escaping electricity rates by rich or poor. It could even be unconstitutional, since the 3,000-percent tax came from the Senate. All tax bills must emanate from the House of Reps; the Senate may only concur or amend. Not in the case of coal, which some senators concocted to tax from the present P10 per ton to P100 starting 2018, then P200 in 2019, and P300 in 2020 onwards. Congressmen’s acquiescence may not legalize matters. President Rodrigo Duterte selectively can veto the coal proviso. Or else, in case of a taxpayer suit, the Supreme Court may strike it down. The latter is a gamble. Depending on the scope of the suit, the justices may bar the entire TRAIN, like what happened to the Reproductive Health Act.

Half of the country’s power plants run on coal. Economists reckon that generation costs would rise 10 to 18 percent with the new tax. To be hit hardest are Mindanao and Visayas. There would also be increases in electricity transmission costs, as some generators offer ancillary services to the national power grid. Further compounding the costs is the 12-percent value added tax, which is based on the generated electricity price.

The senators contend that heavily taxing coal would make the country less dependent on it. But while they say that coal is very pollutive, producers disagree. Newer plants, rated super- and ultra-critical, are more efficient, emitting 10- and 20-percent less carbon, respectively.

 By contrast, renewable energy – mainly wind and solar – are so inefficient that they require P28 billion annual subsidy, courtesy of the consumers. There’s word that the few privileged renewable oligarchs would file for subsidy increase this Jan. One of them is the son of the foremost senator-promoter of the 3,000-percent tax on coal.

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