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Opinion

Where our taxes go

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

The eye-watering surge in fuel prices – further crippling livelihoods on the heels of the pandemic – can be a takeoff point for voter education.

We need greater grassroots awareness of taxation and the need to use public funds judiciously. The topic becomes easily understandable when linked to the pricing of a commodity as basic as fuel.

All voters must be reminded that a hefty 12 percent of pump prices goes to the government. Private motorists, public transport drivers and operators are aware of this. But most commuters become aware of it only when transport fares increase to reflect fuel costs.

Certain candidates are lamenting that people are shrugging off corruption issues in this race. One reason has to be the cynical perception that everyone is a crook in government anyway, that elections simply pave the way for a transfer of the power to steal from one group to another, that power corrupts even those who come into office with noble intentions, so what difference does it make?

But another reason for that generalized perception is the belief that one is not paying income tax and is therefore no taxpayer, so what does it matter if crooks in government steal people’s money?

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The ongoing fuel crisis, which has aggravated the still raging public health and economic crisis, provides an opportunity to raise awareness that everyone is a taxpayer in this country.

Aside from the 12 percent fuel tax, there’s the value-added tax slapped on drugs, medical procedures and other services needed to deal with COVID, plus all the other afflictions that have been around even before the Wuhan virus reached our shores.

A look at the fine print on utility bills will show the layers of taxes collected for water and electricity consumption, landline, internet and telco service whether pre- or post-paid.

People must be made fully aware that they pay taxes every time they drink beer, smoke a cigarette, eat fast-food burger or use the toll roads that now dot Metro Manila and nearby areas.

Public transport drivers and operators aren’t the only ones suffering from the fuel price surge. Even the banana Q, fishball and isaw goto ambulant vendors and micro carinderia owners have seen their profit margins shrink as the cost of cooking gas shoots up.

On top of VAT, people with fixed salaries also have part of their monthly earnings automatically deducted for remittance to the government – a third of the take-home pay, on average, for middle-income employees.

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Everyone is a taxpayer. And every taxpayer has a right to demand the honest and efficient use of that tax money.

This makes it of utmost importance to make the right choices during elections. Free elections are supposed to be the ultimate manifestation of representative democracy.

Elections are opportunities for us to steer the nation in the direction that we want, to make life better for ourselves and the greatest number rather than for that miniscule percentage of the population that controls power and wealth in our dysfunctional society.

Deputy Speaker Rodante Marcoleta, who is now running for the Senate, extrapolates (based on an average family size of five) that there are about 23 million families in the country, but power and wealth are concentrated in less than one percent of those millions.

Marcoleta gained notoriety for championing on the House floor the shutdown of ABS-CBN. He told us on OneNews’ “The Chiefs” last Monday that there is hardly any awareness that he sponsored an anti-dynasty bill. The measure failed to get a co-sponsor and was never taken up for discussion even at the sub-committee level, he lamented.

He’s a party-list congressman, but Marcoleta acknowledges that the party-list system has become abused. Whether in terms of advocacies or congressional representation, he points out that the party-list system no longer works for the marginalized. Instead it has degenerated into just another extension of money politics.

Taxpayers are left footing the bill for the maintenance of the offices of party-list lawmakers, including the many who are anything but marginalized.

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If there is keen public awareness of the taxes collected from each one of us, there could be a stronger push for transparency and accountability in the proper use of people’s money.

Then we might see outrage when people see profligacy in public spending – when officials go on junkets overseas, for example, or use government vehicles for personal use. There could be greater public outrage over tax dodging offenses, especially among government officials.

Where do our taxes go? In advanced societies, this issue is a hot topic especially during elections. How does a new political leadership plan to spend people’s money? There is pushback against politicians’ entitlements, such as bodyguards on the public payroll.

Many years ago when I participated for the first time in a fellowship sponsored by the US government, we were warned not to wear our fellowship IDs in public in Washington. The reason: there were Americans who resented their government’s spending for such programs when they believed there were more urgent matters needing public funding.

Other countries have similar programs; it’s part of China’s projection of soft power, for example.

But it’s interesting to be in a society where people have a high awareness of where their taxes go. In such societies, taxpayers demand value for their money, in terms of honest and efficient governance.

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