Tax reform under GMA I (2001-2004)

Posted: January 3, 2011 in CTRP, FVR, GMA, Jose de Venecia, Legislatures, Philippine politics, Political economy, Political institutions, tax reform, Taxation

Through a rigorous analysis of the tax reform efforts of President Fidel Ramos (1992-1998), the tax policy process is revealed as a bargaining game between various veto players.  An accommodation of some sort is pre-ordained since even as the players have veto powers, everyone has an interest in making sure that a new tax policy emerges from the policy mill.  This is true for President Ramos who initiated the reform.  The desire to get the reform process going is also shared by legislators who, even if satisfied with the status quo, welcomed another opportunity to rewrite tax laws in order to secure divisible policy favors for constituents and supporters.  As a product of bargaining, the resultant tax laws were adulterated versions of their original versions and a mix of public-regarding (e.g., the expanded value added tax law) and private-regarding (e.g., the excise tax on ‘sin’ products law) policies.  The study of the tax policy process affirmed the propensity of lower-level legislators House members) to cater to special and private interests while the Senate was the natural ally of reforming President Ramos.  It also revealed the inordinate influence of several powerful individual legislators in tax policymaking.  The institutional players also included the Supreme Court, which at one point declared a tax law as unconstitutional.  This raised the transactions costs of tax legislation as a new and acceptable law had to be crafted.

 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

President Fidel Ramos

 

The robustness of the conclusions and findings we had arrived at so far can be further tested if we change the decision-makers with the institutional parameters in place.  For this purpose, we examine in this section the tax reform initiatives undertaken during the presidency of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.  As revealed in subsequent paragraphs, this exercise would reveal continuities in tax policy and bolster our previous conclusions regarding tax policymaking in a candidate-centered democratic polity like the Philippines.

 

Arroyo’s tax reform initiatives evolved from her first term to the early months of her second term.  While the state of the country’s public finances was not in a pretty shape upon her take-over in January 2001, a greater sense of urgency was espoused during the start of her second term.  This was largely due to the alarm bells raised by a group from the University of the Philippines School of Economics (UPSE) [that included several former cabinet members from previous administration] who warned of an impending fiscal meltdown.  In her 2004 State of the Nation Address (SONA), Arroyo asked Congress to pass eight tax measures designed to raise some P80 billion in revenues.  However, Arroyo did not communicate a sense of necessity in this front.  She in fact did not replace her economic management team; in contrast, she appointed new men for the national defense and security portfolios.  The UPSE economists did a signal service for warning the nation of the fiscal dangers awaiting a polity that would continue to not fix its public finances.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

President Gloria Macapagal-Arrooyo

 

During her first term, Arroyo initiated moves to reform the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR), the country’s premiere revenue collection agency.  The thrust of the reform was to convert the BIR into a corporate-like public organization that would operate (as well as rewarded and punished) under performance-based parameters.  Officers and staff of the new revenue authority were supposed to be paid at salary scales competitive to the private sector and shielded from political influence.   In her first SONA, Arroyo cited unprecedentedly the sitting BIR commissioner, a mere bureau chief, who spearheaded the reform effort.

 

An interview with Romulo Miral, Jr., then deputy director of the Congressional Planning and Budget Office (CPBO) at the House of Representatives, indicated the radical extent of the proposed BIR reform.  Miral, who was consultant to Bañez at the time, revealed that the plan was to abolish the BIR and establish a new and independent revenue body called the Internal Revenue Management Authority (IRMA) in its place.  None of the former officials and employees of the BIR were to be automatically or preferentially absorbed into IRMA.  There were plans to sub-contract private head-hunters to hire the officials and staff of IRMA and former BIR personnel had to apply with a screening board if they wanted to be employed by IRMA.   Anybody with a derogatory record was deemed ineligible for employment until her name was cleared.  IRMA officials and staff were to enjoy competitive salaries so quality personnel from the corporate sector could be attracted.  In addition, the pay and tenure of senior IRMA officers were to be linked with revenue collections (Miral 2004).   

 

Of course, the BIR officials and employees were against the planned reform.  At first, opposition to Bañez’ initiatives (including the transfer of revenue officials who had overstayed at a particular revenue district office to another locale) was confined to the filing of court suits. However, they obtained support from Courage, the left-leaning union of government employees.  The alliance between Courage and anti-reform BIR elements initiated a massive walkout and picketing at the BIR headquarters against Bañez. Almost immediately after this demonstration of popular resentment, he resigned in August 2002.  Bañez, who wanted to be able to fire corrupt and incompetent tax collectors, accused opponents of reform of stirring up trouble among the agency’s employees and undermining tax collection to thwart changes at the agency (MB 2002). President Arroyo admitted in her State of the Nation Address two weeks earlier in July 2002 that tax collections were running far behind target, while government spending is increasing as planned, so that chances are diminishing of reaching the 3% deficit target she had imposed for this year (Mendoza 2002). 

 

Arroyo could have clearly demonstrated her support for the embattled BIR chief and the IRMA reform by refusing to accept his resignation and supporting the IRMA reform.  However, the planned reform of the tax agency apparently found little support even among her chief allies.  The corrupt mafias within the BIR apparently sabotaged the reform effort by slowing down tax collections.  The drop in revenues was cited by reform opponents to call for Bañez’ resignation and no less than Speaker Jose de Venecia made the first call. 

Houser speaker Jose de Venecia

The speaker was seconded by other House members including Aniceto Saludo, Jr. (Southern Leyte) and Prospero Nograles (Davao).  Saludo even threatened to file charges of economic sabotage against Bañez for the poor revenue collections (Diaz 2002).  Notwithstanding President Arroyo’s optimism during her 2001 SONA, Bañez’ reform efforts apparently did not earn him friends within Congress, especially in the House of Representatives.  While House Bill 5054 calling for the establishment of a National Authority for Revenue Administration (NARA, a new name used in lieu of the much-maligned IRMA) was introduced, the measure languished in the House Committee on Appropriations (HOR 2003).  During the third and last regular session of the 12th congress, a similar measure (HB 6435) was also introduced.  While it fared better than HB 5054, it only managed to be reported by committee and did not pass the second reading stage.  In the Senate, a counterpart measure (Senate Bill 2463) was introduced by Senator Ramon Magsaysay, Jr.  However, the 12th Congress closed with SB 2463 pending in the Senate Committees on Ways and Means (headed by Senator Ralph Recto), Civil Service and Government Reorganization (headed by Senator Aquilino Pimentel), and Finance (headed by Senator Manuel Villar) (HOR 2004).

 

Miral (2004) explained the proposed BIR reform did not gain ground during the 12th Congress for several reasons.  First, the proposed reform was “mistakenly packaged” as either a ‘privatization’ or ‘corporatization’ of revenue collections.  Miral believed these were unfortunate labels that unduly raised alarums and red herrings among the affected parties.  Second, he noted that the authors of the IRMA measure (which included Speaker de Venecia, Rolando Andaya, Jr., Neptali Gonzales II, and Julio Ledesma IV) were actually not well versed in the technical aspects of the proposed agency reform.  Miral intimated that the less-senior champions of the reform, Reps. Florencio Abad and Joel Villanueva (a party-list representative) were the ones who seriously studied the IRMA proposal and even traveled to countries like Mexico and New Zealand that had reformed their revenue agencies

Rep. Joel Villanueva

(Miral 2004).  Rep. Florencio 'Butch' AbadBut they apparently could not offer much contest to the reform’s opponents.  After Bañez’ resignation, the reform was softened through a proposal to form a National Authority for Revenue Administration (NARA).  A key compromise was the inclusion of a ‘preferential absorption of BIR employees’ provision in the proposed NARA measure.  

 

 

During the same 12th Congress, other tax reform measures similarly rotted within the legislative mill.  At the end the second regular session, the status of measures to index and update so-called ‘sin taxes’ (HB 4765 and HB 5057) was reported as for ‘further Committee deliberation’ (HOR 2003).  During the third regular session, similar measures (HB 1728 and HB 4765) remained pending at the House Committee of Ways and Means chaired by Rep. Julio Ledesma IV (HOR 2004).  In contrast, measures that provided tax relief for several sectors and groups were either enacted into law or were approved by the House in third reading.  These included RA 9238 (which exempted certain services from the VAT), RA 9243 (which eliminated the imposition of the documentary stamp tax on secondary trading of financial instruments), RA 9294 (which clarified the tax exemption of offshore banking and foreign currency deposit units, authored by Rep. Exequiel Javier), HB 5713 (which granted tax incentives on capital equipment imports of new and expanding firms registered with the Board of Investments), HB 6344 (which restored the fiscal incentives to enterprises engaged in agriculture and fisheries (HOR 2004). 

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