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Seeing the TRAIN Law in its proper perspective

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Romeo L. Bernardo

Introspective

No surprise, TRAIN surfaced as an election issue: senators and congressmen who sponsored and voted for it are being unfairly though ineffectively targeted. Much of the conversation also missed the point that TRAIN is part of a larger national project designed to put our fiscal house in order coherently and comprehensively. This is an ambitious undertaking never attempted in past administrations where tax reform tended to be more piecemeal or driven by donor institutions like the IMF, or an actual or potential fiscal crises.

TRAIN is the first of five packages of the comprehensive tax reform program. Other packages deal with corporate income taxation and modernizing fiscal incentives; sustainable financing for Universal Health Care through increased sin taxes on tobacco and alcohol; fixing our broken property valuation system; and reforming capital income taxation. The program has always been presented by the government’s economic team as not an end in themselves, but means of making the tax system one in which everyone contributes her or his fair share of our investments in infrastructure and human development. All packages seek a fairer, simpler and more efficient system, while only two are also revenue enhancing, TRAIN and the sin tax package for the long-term financing of Universal Health Care.

The government passed TRAIN in 2017. By 2018, government attained 108 percent of its collection target and, as earmarked in the law itself, funded crucial infrastructure and social protection programs. An estimated three hundred thousand jobs were created in construction due to increased spending in infrastructure and, as of the first quarter of 2019, P22 billion were given to poor households through the Unconditional Cash Transfer program and P500 million support to qualified jeepney operators via the Pantawid Pasada program.

The measure was passed, with the support of a cross-section of business groups (including the Management Association of the Philippines, PCCI, and Go Negosyo), civil society (such as the Foundation for Economic Freedom, Action for Economic Reform), international organizations (such as the Asian Development Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank), academe, and former Department of Finance Secretaries and Undersecretaries.

Other major elements include the lowering of the personal income tax for 99% of wage earners (a total of P111 billion in additional take home pay in 2018); a staggered increase of petroleum excise tax; repeal of 54 out of 61 special laws with non-essential VAT exemptions; adjustment of automobile and tobacco excise tax rates; and the introduction of a sweetened beverage excise tax in support of health objectives.

This early, TRAIN has yielded additional benefits to the economy. The latest was the upgrade last week of the Philippine investment grade credit rating by S&P to BBB+, surpassing countries like Italy, Portugal and Indonesia, and placing the country at par with Mexico, Peru and Thailand. This will lower the cost of borrowing of the government, at around 3 billion annually for the next 2 years, according to the Treasury, and private sector borrowers alike, and make the Philippines more attractive for investments.




Surprisingly, two research papers of Government’s own think tank, Philippine Institute for Development Studies were being cited by opposition candidates to bash this reform package. These were the papers of Dr. Rosario Manasan titled “Assessment of Republic Act 10963: The 2017 Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion,” 30 pages, and of Ramon Clarete, Philip Tuano et al titled “Assessment of TRAIN’s Coal and Petroleum Excise Taxes Environmental Benefits and Impacts on Sectoral Employment and Household Welfare,” 67 pages. The criticism is unfair most of all to the authors of the PIDS studies since the partisan critics were quite selective in picking up the critical elements of the studies.

I am honored to have served as a Trustee of PIDS for a decade and much appreciate how independent research by a quasi-fiscally autonomous think tank contributes valuably to public debate and formulation of national policies. It has done so effectively in such diverse fields as agriculture, land reform, reproductive health, housing finance, foreign investments, food security and rice policy, etc. as I wrote in my parting column “Bridging the gap between knowledge and power” (28 March 2016). I also know Drs. Clarete and Manasan well, and have the highest regard for them and their work.

However, allow me to register some reservations on their studies in the following respects.

a) The exclusion of infrastructure spending and social mitigating measures in the analysis of Clarete, et al, and Manasan, respectively;

b) The papers are short in proposing alternative policy direction; and

c) The authors abstract from the primary objectives of each of the components of TRAIN and that of the overall tax reform program.

At the end of the day, the most basic omission of these criticisms of TRAIN from analysts and candidates is their most partial analysis. Partial for the analysts, meaning incomplete. Partial for the candidates, meaning partisan.

They focus on the tax impact on marginalized sectors, but fail to consider the public spending and higher growth that will benefit all, especially the poorest. Public expenditure studies show that the poorest segments gain the most from social spending (e.g. education and health) and infrastructure, immediately and especially over time as these investments create jobs and raise incomes.

If PIDS will be issuing a Policy Brief for wider circulation in the future, perhaps these points could be properly reflected as well as my earlier thoughts on the larger goals of the comprehensive tax reform program – that it is part of a much larger effort to fund our much-needed investments through a tax system that is fairer, simpler, and more efficient.

The next step in this journey is to make sure government is fiscally responsible about implementing the Universal Health Care Law and that we have the means to do so in the long-term. Smokers and heavy drinkers will be accessing health services more than others, on average. They should contribute more. According to a recent Pulse Asia survey, 75% of Filipinos believe sin taxes should be raised. The elections will soon be over and the legislators will be back for 9 session days before the close of the 17th Congress. The House has already passed their version on 3rd and final reading. The ball is in the Senate’s court. It needs to go back to work and pass the sin tax package of the comprehensive tax reform program post haste.

 

Romeo L. Bernardo was finance undersecretary during the Cory Aquino and Fidel Ramos administrations. He is Philippine Adviser of GlobalSource Partners, a New York-based network of independent analysts.

romeo.lopez.bernardo@gmail.com