Blurred line

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

Where do our taxes go? Netizens asked this question on Friday night, and provided the answer: it went to the aviation fuel for the government helicopter that President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and First Lady Liza Araneta-Marcos took to avoid the hellish traffic going to the Philippine Arena in Bulacan where they watched British rock group Coldplay perform.

Public disappointment with what some described as one of the worst cases of wang-wang for the Philippines’ entitled class circulated on social media over the weekend. For the older generations, it revived memories of Ferdinand Senior and Imeldific.

Taxpayers can only hope the traffic situation deemed to be on the scale of an emergency, which ostensibly prompted an airlift for BBM and wife, will lead to better traffic management in Greater Manila.

Perhaps the horrendous traffic that forced the First Couple to take a helicopter will end the state of denial in the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority about the Philippine capital region having the worst traffic congestion among “metros” in the world.

And perhaps the billionaire BBM, who describes himself as a polo-playing friend of Britain’s King Charles III, can buy his own helicopter and aviation fuel.

Boys just wanna have fun: Noynoy Aquino liked driving at top speed in a Porsche; Rodrigo Duterte has his Harley-Davidsons. BBM likes jet travel.

Surely the Marcoses, who owe the nation a reported P2 billion in estate tax alone, can afford to buy their own private aircraft plus pricey aviation fuel for attending pop concerts, or for watching Formula One in Singapore, or jetting off to Brunei for an overnight stay to hobnob with the oil-rich country’s royalty at the prince’s grand wedding.

Coldplay frontman Chris Martin, thanking the large crowd that showed up at the Philippine Arena sans tax-funded helicopter, said “holy s**t” – referring to the hellish traffic, not the fancy transport of his top VIP fan. 

Undoubtedly, there are people who will dismiss the netizens’ beef as much ado over nothing, and defend the use of the presidential helicopter for what was described as “date night” for the First Couple.

Such people will also fully agree with the explanation given by the Presidential Security Group (PSG), that getting stuck in that horrid traffic to the Philippine Arena was a security risk for the President. (Attending a packed concert apparently was not.)

The PSG implied that using the presidential helicopter was its decision, for security reasons. BBM of course could have said no, but nothing comes between him and his date night plans.

*      *      *

Date night at least shone a light on taxation.

The Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) regularly conducts an information campaign to encourage tax payment.

A good way to kick it off this year is by reminding the President to pay his clan’s long overdue estate tax, although it’s doubtful that this will happen. BBM’s first BIR commissioner Lilia Guillermo, who openly assured the public that the bureau would go after the Marcos estate tax, was sacked after less than five months.

Her replacement, Romeo Lumagui Jr., is the husband of a trusted assistant of LAM and a lawyer at the First Lady’s firm. 

Benjamin Diokno, when asked as finance chief if the BIR would go after the Marcos estate tax, grumpily asked why the burden of collecting the tax was being placed on him.

Any tax campaign should not just be a reminder to pay the correct taxes, but should also inform the people of the types of taxes collected.

Many Filipinos equate tax payments only with income tax, and don’t see themselves as taxpayers. Every Juan and Juana must fully understand how much of hard-earned personal income is eaten up by value-added and excise taxes on the most basic commodities: a hefty 12 percent on fuel, which is passed on to transport fares; VAT on electricity, water, cell phone load, medicine and everything in the supermarket.

If there is high public awareness of how much of one’s money goes to the government in terms of VAT (plus road user’s and amusement taxes), there would be greater demand for transparency, accountability and good governance.

And there would be outrage when people see public funds and assets being misused for personal or partisan purposes, or being stolen outright by crooks.

*      *      *

Throughout world history, bloody revolutions have been staged and monarchies dismantled over unfair taxation and the misuse of people’s money.

In our country, the misuse has become so brazen that there are people who think this is the norm in governance.

With high awareness of what and how much the government collects from all Filipinos, from cradle to grave, there could be greater demand for better services, and increased outrage against abuse of power and credit-grabbing or epal acts.

When tax-aware people see huge billboards of politicians and their families displayed at prominent spots, not to give any useful information but simply to greet everyone a merry Christmas or happy fiesta, people will know enough to ask if the display space was paid for, or if displaying such materials is even allowed on that spot.

Ordinary folks pay high fees for advertising display space. Such spots are strictly regulated. Why can public officials display their personal ads anywhere, for free? It’s space pollution, with zero value for the public.

For the typical government official in this country, the line between public and private property is blurred. The higher the position, the more indistinct the line becomes; at the top it becomes invisible.

Tax awareness should draw that clear line.

It was refreshing to see people questioning the use of the presidential helicopter and where our taxes go, and lamenting the abuse of government privileges.

As long as there are people asking such questions, there’s hope for our weak republic.

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