Business As Usual

Romeo Lumagui: Beyond taxes

Louise Maureen Simeon - The Philippine Star
Romeo Lumagui: Beyond taxes
Bureau of Internal Revenue Commissioner Romeo “Jun” Lumagui Jr.
STAR/ File

MANILA, Philippines —  Whether it’s a selfie, an autograph or a video greeting — the country’s top taxman willingly obliges as he tries to bring the difficult yet necessary concept of tax closer to Filipinos. There is a running joke that in every administration, only one or two government officials will have a more appealing look that would often pique the public’s interest beyond their official job description.

Such may be the case for tax lawyer and Bureau of Internal Revenue Commissioner Romeo “Jun” Lumagui Jr. who admitted that more people have been asking for selfies during events, something that he does not mind at all.

“Before I became commissioner, I’m a very private person. But I guess, it comes with the territory. You accept the fact that once you’re appointed, you’re already a public figure,” Lumagui said.

“I also want to show the public that I’m accommodating because that also reflects on the agency,” he said.

After passing the Bar examinations and ranking 19th in 2006, Lumagui worked in private law firms for 10 years before transferring to government service in 2016.

He first served as technical assistant to the BIR commissioner before being designated as tax fraud head for several regions. He was also deputy commissioner prior to assuming the top post in November 2022.

It’s probably true that many private-turned-public workers were looking for a deeper meaning or even a greater calling in their life as they let go of a normal routine in exchange for a more challenging yet fulfilling job.

Lumagui is no exception as he looks at his work in a different light, considering how critical it is to generate the majority of revenues and taxes that serve as the lifeblood of the nation – no matter how cliche it might seem.

Having worked at the BIR since the Duterte administration, Lumagui saw how the agency operated  – the good, the bad and the ugly.

This is also the reason why it was an easy “yes” for Lumagui when President Marcos, who happens to be his godfather in his wedding in 2019, asked him to be the BIR chief.

“Ever since I started working, my mentality is that you have to have pride in what you do. It’s not enough for me that you’re just passing through without any accomplishments,” Lumagui said.

“That is why I’m relentless in pursuing the reforms needed here in the BIR. We need institutional changes that even after my term here, it’s still going to be there,” he said.

Internal cleansing

It is no secret that BIR ranks high on the list of the most corrupt agencies in the Philippines amid notorious cases of bribery and extortion, among others.

“The perception is negative because for so long, there’s really no admission at all. If you don’t admit that it exists, you’ll never be able to address it,” Lumagui said.

“We know the image, that’s why we have to do something about it. And if you’re not following the policies, then you have to get out,” he said.

Lumagui admitted that some BIR officials used to be backed by politicians and corporations who need eyes and ears at the agency for their own personal agenda—a situation he cannot control before, but is now being addressed under his watch.

While fully cleaning an agency like BIR is not a walk in the park, Lumagui believes he is slowly but surely getting there as he insists that hard work and the dedication to improve and serve the taxpayers should be the priority.

“I want people who have the same passion as I have. If we are able to improve BIR, it would be a big help to make it easier for the people to let go of their hard-earned money and pay their taxes,” Lumagui said.

“I’ve been here for just a few years but I learned to love the institution. And I want to reach the point that when you say BIR, you immediately think that it’s a trustworthy institution,” he said.

Changing taxpayers’ behavior

As Lumagui strives to scrub BIR off of its natural dirt, there is also a need to modify the way Filipinos behave toward paying their taxes.

As of now, there is so much room for the BIR to strengthen tax compliance and go after tax evaders in order to meet its collection goals. Filipinos often fail to pay taxes because it’s either too difficult to comply or they are discouraged since a lot can easily get away with it.

Lumagui is bent on proving that nobody should be exempted, no matter how big or small of a player you are.

“If we can raid and file cases against the big ones, all the more that ordinary people would have to comply. Everyone should pay because we really want to level the playing field,” Lumagui said.

The BIR chief also wants to make it easier for Filipinos to pay their dues, taking advantage of technology to digitize its services for efficient and faster collection.

“We owe it to the people. We expect payment from them, the least we can do is make it easy for them. That’s why I keep reminding our employees to exert extra effort in serving them,” Lumagui said.

Family man

Beyond collecting taxes and pushing for reforms, Lumagui is first and foremost a husband to Carmela and a father to four-year old twin boys and another baby coming in June.

A self-confessed gym buff, Lumagui would often wake up early at 5:30 a.m. and squeeze in an hour of exercise before going to the BIR head office in Quezon City to attend meetings and sign paperworks until around 7 p.m.

Despite having a long day, he makes sure to spend quality time with his toddler kids.

“I used to hear this a lot from people that when you see your kids, you will feel better no matter how tired you are. It’s actually really true,” Lumagui said.

“My kids are in the afternoon schedule in their preschool so I still see them awake when I come home and I play with them. And it’s just fun and it makes me happy,” he said.

His weekends are also reserved for his family and catching up on sleep and rest. He said he would rather stay at home instead of attending social gatherings unless it is really a big event.

On certain weekends that he has extra energy to spare, Lumagui would do firing to help him regain his focus or ride his motorcycle and stroll for a few hours to spend some time alone and think.

While his kids are still too young to make sense of what his job actually is, Lumagui hopes that they would eventually be proud of him.

“I want them to know that I tried to do the right thing. That I was able to steer the agency into greater heights and improve BIR,” he said.

A Senate post?

Apart from the usual politicians, government officials are also the subject of queries as to whether they intend to finish the administration’s term or seek another position.

As the mid-term polls draw near, Lumagui said he heard grapevine talks about him allegedly eyeing a seat in the 2025 elections. Some even approached and tried to convince him to vie for a Senate post.

While he is not in any survey, Lumagui said even BIR employees are teasing him that he will be in office only until October or before the filing of candidacy.

But Lumagui dispelled such rumors, noting that he enjoys being an appointee and that politics is too messy for him.

“Sometimes, I try to imagine if it could be for me. And I always end up thinking that it’s not, that I don’t want it. I don’t see myself campaigning and all that,” Lumagui said.

“I imagine myself that if I win, will I be happy? I don’t think so,” he said.

As an appointee of the President, Lumagui can be removed any time or he can finish his term alongside Marcos. Whatever it would be, he said he would likely go back to the private sector and return to his old normal life.

After some time, if an opportunity would knock and another administration would trust him, then he can probably serve the public again.

“I don’t want to ask or compete for a certain position. I want to be there because I was exactly the one in mind of that person, because he or she trusts me that I can do the reforms needed,” Lumagui said.

At the end of the day, whether Lumagui decides based on other people’s clamor or his own personal stand solely depends on him.

For now, he goes back to his primary job of ensuring that at least P3.055 trillion in taxes will be in state coffers by the end of the year.

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