House sets rush work on ‘sin tax’

WITH three session days left before Congress goes on a month-long Christmas break, the House is rushing the passage of the amended sin tax and a bill to increase the monthly Social Security System pension by P2,000―but is putting off until next year a measure to reimpose the death penalty.

Lawmakers have also put on hold the emergency powers being sought by President Rodrigo Duterte to address the traffic problem, after they rejected Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade’s proposal to appoint him “traffic crisis manager,” which would give him broad powers, not only over land but also air and sea transport.

The lawmakers said they did not see any traffic congestion in airports or seaports nationwide.

House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez
A freedom of information bill also failed to pass at the committee level.

Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez last week called for an all-majority-member caucus to ask them which of the priority bills should be passed.

With only two hearings held, the House committee on ways and means, voting 26-0 passed House Bill 4144 amending the Sin Tax Law that would have imposed a unitary tax on all brands at P30 per pack by Jan. 1, 2017.

The panel members approved the bill authored by ABS Rep. Eugene Michael de Vera, who pushed for a two-tier tax system that would increase the tax rate for low-priced brands to P32 from P25 per pack and the rate for high-end brands to P36 per pack from P29.

De Vera and panel chairman Quirino Rep. Dakila Carlos Cua were trying to beat the January 1 implementation of the unitary tax system.

The day after the proposed amended sin tax bill was approved, the House committee on rules, chaired by House Majority Leader Rodolfo Fariñas immediately scheduled the bill for plenary debate.

House Deputy Speaker Pia Cayetano and opposition member Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman questioned the speed with which the bill was being processed.

Cayetano moved that the bill be referred first to the House committee on health as the health matters were not discussed by the Cua panel.

Lagman accused the House leadership of railroading the bill’s passage.

“What are the merits of this measure so much so that we will sideswipe the unitary system? What are the overriding reasons to jettison the unitary system?” Lagman said during the plenary debate. 

“Rules require the provision of a committee report. As I review the committee report, there is nothing here that discuss the submissions of the resource persons that will justify its adoption. This does not comply with the rules,” Lagman added.

“Debate on a multi-tier system has been ongoing. With a higher rate, it will give more revenue and curb the smoking rate,” Cua said. 

Cayetano, however, said that as a sponsor of the sin tax bill when she was in the Senate, the move to a unitary tax was aimed at protecting people’s health.

A two-tier system, she said, would make the cheapest cigarettes available to the poor.

“We negate all positive outcomes of the PhilHealth and GHW Law,” Cayetano said, seeking to open debates on the issue in the health committee.

But Cua defended the bill, saying the unitary tax system would prejudice farmers from tobacco producing regions.

Lagman, on the other hand, said this issue had already been settled when the Sin Tax law was passed.

House Deputy Speaker Fredenil Castro, meanwhile, said he prevailed upon the Speaker to defer the passage of the death penalty bill so that it could be discussed lengthily in the plenary deliberations.

The revival of capital punishment is bound to set back the Philippine government’s efforts to bring to justice criminals who have fled abroad, House Senior Deputy Minority Leader and Buhay Rep. Lito Atienza warned Sunday.

“Once Congress restores the death penalty, we could lose the ability to bring home and prosecute drug lords, plunderers, embezzlers and even murderers who have slipped out of the country,” Atienza said.

Many countries around the world oppose capital punishment, and would refuse to send fugitives back to the Philippines if they could face trial here for felonies that may be punished by death sentences, according to Atienza.

“We may have situations wherein Filipinos with arrest warrants issued by Philippine courts are captured overseas, but foreign governments won’t repatriate the escapees on grounds they could be executed here after trial,” Atienza said.

The House committee on justice, voting 12-6 with one abstention, approved last week a bill reinstating death verdicts for heinous offenses such as drug trafficking, murder, rape, robbery, carjacking, kidnapping, bribery, plunder, parricide, infanticide, destructive arson, piracy, and treason.

The bill was expected to be submitted for plenary approval shortly, in accordance with President Rodrigo Duterte wish to put 50 convicts to death every month to help deter crime.

Meanwhile, Alvarez announced that the House is set to approve this week a joint resolution increasing by P2,000 the monthly pension of the SSS pensioners under the Social Security Act of 1997 after the measure was passed by the committee on government enterprises and privatization on Dec. 6.

The first tranche will be given this December.

 North Cotabato Rep. Jesus N. Sacdalan, committee chairman,  said he and Senator Richard Gordon, chairman of the Senate committee on government corporations and public enterprises, met last Tuesday and agreed that the second tranche of the SSS pension hike amounting to P1,000 will be given by 2019.

Sacdalan said the committee opted last December 6 to instead pass a joint resolution to ensure speedy approval and implementation of the SSS pension hike proposal. 

“We will certainly pass it before the holiday break,” Sacdalan said.

As of January 2016, there are about 33-million SSS members and 2.15-million retirees receiving their pensions upon retirement, the joint resolution said.

House Bill 2653, introduced by House deputy minority leader and Makati City Rep. Luis Campos Jr., proposes to amend the Expanded Senior Citizens Act of 2010 that currently provides a straight P500 monthly stipend to all indigent Filipinos 60 years old and above.

Campos said P2,000 monthly pension is being eyed for “older” indigent seniors as the government sets aside P18 billion for the P500 monthly stipend of 2.8-million poverty-stricken elderly persons.

Indigent seniors, Campos said, refer to all Filipinos who are 60 years old and above who are without regular pension from the SSS or the Government Service Insurance System, or lacking a permanent source of income, compensation, or regular and appropriate financial assistance from relatives.

In battling for the swift passage of his bill, Campos invoked the mandate of the 1987 Constitution for the state “to care for the elderly through just programs of social security, and to provide improved quality of life for all.”

“We have to extend greater financial support to extremely deprived seniors who tend to be weaker and more vulnerable owing to their highly advanced age,” Campos said.

“An allowance of P2,000 per month, or P24,000 per annum, would serve as a bigger helping hand to destitute seniors who are at least 70 years old, and who have absolutely no one else to turn to for financial aid,” he said.

Besides, Campos said that under the law, Congress is supposed to review the monthly subsidy for impoverished seniors every two years.

“Yet, we have not raised the pension in the last six years,” he said.

Topics: Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez , Congress , Christmas break , Sin tax , Social Security System pension , President Rodrigo Duterte , Secretary Arthur Tugade , Lawmakers , Duterte's emergency powers , Freedom of information bill
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