Press Release
February 5, 2018

Transcript of Interview of Akbayan Senator Risa Hontiveros
ANC's Early Edition with Christian Esguerra

Q: Let's talk about this bill. It's not surprising that you are the one introducing this type of bill because you were the lone dissenter to the TRAIN law.

Senator Risa Hontiveros (SRH): In the third and final reading, yes, but when we voted on the bicam version, masaya Christian dahil apat na kami noon nina Senators Aquino, Trillanes at Lacson, who during the period of interpellation ay kasama ko sa pagtulak nito.

Q: Let's talk about this bill. Isn't it too early for this kind of bill to introduce?

SRH: Interesting question. Not too early at all, especially we consider that we have had a VAT rate of 12% for the last 13 years since the VAT law was first passed. If we remember, yung panahong yun yung Kongreso initially proposed really just a 10% VAT, it's just that the president then - PGMA - as the President was mandated to do at that time took advantage of the general provision in the VAT law which allowed her to raise the VAT kaya itinatas niya sa 12%. For the past a dozen or so years, mas binabalikat ng mamamayan ang mas mataas na VAT. So it is reasonable I believe to reduce it finally to 10%, which is the original proposed level, by first year of next year, January 2019.

Q: So may time pa po for the government to take advantage of the 12%?

SRH: Yes, to take advantage of one more year and then, pagpatak ng January 1, 2019, as long as the government can ascertain that the VAT revenues by then at 10% already constitutes 4.5% of our gross domestic product to further lower it to 8%. Again, Christian, that is a very reasonable proposition kasi ngayon pa lang anga average VAT rate sa buong ASEAN is already 8%. There are countries like Thailand and Singapore which are even lower than 8%.

Q: But if you lower the VAT rate form 12% to 10%, how much are we talking abut in terms of revenue loss?

SRH: The loss revenues will about to P55 to P60 billion in the first year. Pero unrealistic doomsday scenario yung sinasabi na if we lower the VAT rate now even to just 10%, it will seriously undercut the government spending, for example for infrastructure. In the end, because even now the Department of Finance projects that with the TRAIN law the revenues will amount to P130 billion. So even with the lowering of the VAT just to 10%, meron ka pang buffer na P65 to P70 billion.

Q: Kikita pa rin?

SRH: Kikita pa rin ang gobyerno sa TRAIN.

Q: Mas babagal yung raising of revenues?

SRH: Yes, but just on the first year. Ang projection ko, if we protect the spending power of the Filipinos lalo na yung mahihirap na hindi naman makikinabang sa increased personal income tax exemption because many of them earn below the minimum wage and they don't have regulars salaries. The informal economy workers, they account for the larger so-called near-poor families. Sila yung may maraming dependent children, senior citizens. They will be bearing the brunt of higher prices of goods because if this regressive taxation.

Q: Before we go into the details, let's go the argument by the finance department which said that they might be open to the proposal...

SRH: I'm glad to hear that.

Q: But we might forego all the exemptions?

SRH: That would be going too far because meron pa ring mga vulnerable sectors, who, right now, are benefiting from socially sensitive exemptions lalo na yung mga senior citizens, persons with disabilities, yung small and medium scale cooperatives, pati nga yung mga socialized housing for informal sectors. Palagay ko ay kailangan pa rin ang ilang mga exemptions tulad ng mga ito to help those disadvantaged and marginalized to strengthen themselves bago natin i-consider talaga na tanggalin yung mga exemptions. At dapat may konsultasyon muna sa kanila bago i-consider ito.

Q: Are you open to this?

SRH: I'm open to selective retention of exemptions especially for the vulnerable sectors. But others exemptions, for example for economic zones it think that bears a review.

Q: Alin ang non-negotiable?

SRH: Non-negotiable talaga yung sa senior citizens, PWD, coops, socialized housing. Saka alam naman siguro ni Secretary Sonny Dominguez na even the other countries that have a lower VAT rate ay hindi nila in-eliminate lahat ng exemptions nila. Thailand has more than 30 plus existing exemptions. May ibang sources ng efficiencies sa tax collection and generation na kailangan matukoy natin. There are sources of leakages that we have to plug. Let's study the best practices of Thailand.

Q: For the government they will say that we're doing that already but we are talking about real numbers here.

SRH: Yes, we are talking about real numbers, Christian. Kasi bakit may ibang mga bansa sa region natin even of comparable development are able to more efficiently collect their taxes at lower VAT rates pero nasusustentuhan pa rin nila yung mga vulnerable sectors nila through reasonable exemptions. Iyon ang kailangan ating aralin.

Q: So far how many of your colleagues have somehow expressed support for this bill?

SRH: Well not just quietly pero vocally si Senator Ping, who since the TRAIN period of interpellation and amendments, has already pushing for a lower VAT rate bagama't meron din silang condition of eliminating some exemptions. And I am hoping na yung mga colleagues ko lalo na yung mga nasa minority bloc at pati sa majority will see not just the desirability, not just public support for my BAWAS VAT bill but also reasonableness and its economic sustainability.

Q: In effect na yung TRAIN law but this particular proposal was meant precisely to mitigate the impact of that especially on the poorest of the poor.

SRH: Yes.

Q: Pero ngayon ano ba talaga ang nararamdaman ng mamamayan?

SRH: Well at least yung mga swerteng may regular na sweldo buwan-buwan are enjoying a higher personal income tax exemption and a higher take-home pay. Pero at least anecdotally, stories are starting to roll in about people, though enjoying a higher personal income tax exemption, ay naghahanda nang umutang dahil hindi pa rin ma-offset yung mas mataas na presyo ng bilihin at mga serbisyong kailangang bayaran. Stories are starting to roll in of small and medium scale entrepreneurs receiving memos from their suppliers that the prices of raw materials will increase; tataas itong presyo ng raw materials nang 80, 81, 82 percent. And they have to shoulder it. Christian, you still have pending fare hike requests from the transport sector since 2015, 2016, because of 2014 fuel price increase. Ngayon pa lang pagdaan mo sa gasolinahan...We're not yet talking about the add-on impact of the TRAIN, na yung excise tax on fuel products. Pero ngayon pa lang nakikita natin na tumatas yung presyo ng mga diesel, gasoline, let alone yung LPG na araw-araw ay ginagamit natin.

Q: What do you think of these particular anecdotal scenarios that you mentioned? Baka naman wala pang real impact but they (businesses) are taking advantage of the situation?

SRH: If they are taking advantage already, I would concede that point. That is also an area of concern. Kaya valid ang panawagan sa Department of Trade and Industry na mag-price na epektibo talaga at may disciplinary action; yung panawagan sa Philippine Competition Commission to look out for anti-competitive and abusive practices, for example, on the part of yung tinatawag na oligopolistic industries or yung sa mga area na limited lang yung supply na, say for example, gasolina at LPG, o kaya yung mga hindi regular na nag-issue ng resibo para mabantayan na hindi nila abusuhin yung dapat na suggested retail price.

Q: When do you expect the full brunt of the TRAIN law?

SRH: Actually the brunt is already rolling, like a locomotive, like a steam engine, baka maging isang bullet train din iyan, because the tax effect of the TRAIN is on January 1 pero yung subsidies para sa mahihirap will only take effect in the second quarter. You have a three-month window the people, poor Filipinos, na hindi na nga nakinabang sa mas mababang personal income tax exemption ay magbabayad ng mas mataas na presyo para sa produkto at serbisyo at maghihintay hanggang Abril para makatanggapa ng unconditional cash transfer.

Q: Isn't that enough? I think P25.7 billion in this year's budget was included for the cash transfer?

SRH: I don't think it's enough. In fact Christian, during the period of interpellation and with some of my colleagues including Senator Sherwin, I was arguing for a larger unconditional cash transfer tapos for a greater number of poor and near-poor families doo sa unang seven deciles ng ating populasyon, and for a longer period of time. Kasi ang subsidies ilang tao lang iyan pero yung buwis forever. So medyo unfortunately bagama't yung layunin ng TRAIN bill at the start included to make our taxation system more progressive, bawasan ang pasanin ng buwis sa mahihirap, it fell short of that particular target, kaya ang sabi ko we missed the train in that important objective kaya sinusubukan kong habuling ngayon sa pamamagitan nitong piecemeal legislation na BAWAS VAT.

Q: Yung pag-distribute ng unconditional cash transfer, you mentioned April, iyon ba talaga?

SRH: Iyon yung sinabi ng DOF na magiging handa na i-release iyan, second quarter of 2018. So titiisin lalo na ng mga mahihihrap na pamilya na wala namang dagdag na tax exemption pero January 1 pa lang ay kailangan nang magbayad ng mas mataas para sa detergent nila, para sa sardinas nila, para sa gasoline nila?

Q: How about the monitoring? Of course the Senate has its oversight function regarding this particular issue but when it comes to the efficiency of distributing this unconditional cash transfer to the actual recipients, kasi during the 4PS program big problem din yung leakage.

SRH: Well hopefully maraming natutunan ang gobyerno lalo na yung DSWD sa unang taon ng 4PS. And may I say that I do believe that despite the administrative difficulties then ay malaking tulong ang 4Ps then para iangat ang ilang porysento ng ating mahihirap na pamilya mula sa kahirapan. I think very illustrative dito yung unang batch ng 4Ps, na nagtapos na ng high school, at yung iba naging valedictorian pa, salutatorian at natanggap sa mga state universities. Harinawa sa pagpapatuloy noong unconditional cash transfer ngayon ay hind imaging kasinglaking problema yung administrative pero mas mabigyan nila ng tugon yung social effects

Q: Let's move on to another topic. You used to head this committee on health. There is this issue now regarding dengvaxia....Ano yung concern n'yo coming from the Senate?

SRH: I think yung sa health committee ay talagang isang concern naming yung hit that has been taken on government's immunization program. Imagine yung mga reports na ngayon ay nag-re-refuse yung mga magulang na pabakunahan yung mga anak nila kahit na doon sa mga easily preventable disease because, as you said, of the hysteria generated by the handling of this issue. Pati ba naman deworming ay tinatanggihan ng mga magulang sa ilang mga areas. It's really a case for concern. Alam naman natin bilang mga magulang, mga health advocates, immunization remains one of the best preventive measures against easily preventable childhood diseases. Sana pakinggan itong finding at recommendations ng Department of Health panel of PGH experts about these 14 deaths from dengue, within which they traced na three na may causal effect doon sa pagpapabakuna ng dengvaxia. One of these kids did not even develop the anti-bodies sa dengue. Ang sabi nga nila, this requires further study. Bakit iba ito sa kaso ng dalawang bata na namatay din pero nag-developed ng anti bodies pero hindi sapat. We should continue to listen to the Department of Health. We should listen to the World Health Organizations. Kasi ito yung dalawa sa national at international experts natin on health. Unfortunately the PAO did not include PGH doctors in its investigation. Kung sana mula sa simula ay sinama nila yung PGH experts ay mas naging kapani-paniwala yung kanilang imbestigasyon, yung kanilang findings. Hindi sana nagkaroon ng espasyo ang publiko to suspect that there was some other agenda behind this or the issue has been politicized to the detriment of the children. Doon sa tatlong batang namatay, the DOH already used the language causal effect to having been inoculated with dengvaxia. Sanofi must step up to it legal and ethical responsibilities kasi sa wakas during the Blue Ribbon hearing, on the third time I asked the question, finaly sinabi nila na "yes, if causal effect or causal relationship is shown between having been inoculated with dengvaxia and deaths of chilred, we will bear for them." So dapat sagutin nila yug gastos.

Q: When will the Senate conduct its next hearing?

SRH: I think Chairman Dick Gordon announced a final hearing and agreed to a closing destination on the health aspects, through Chair JV Ejercito.

Q: Pero when it comes to liabilities? Kasi that's one issue. So far ano yug nakikita ninyong maliwanag dito?

SRH: So far ang nakikita kong maliwanag on the heath side in terms of liabilities yung sa Sanofi. On the governance side I expect the Blue Ribbon committee will zero in on the process na isinagawa ng Department of Health. As I've said before yung Sanofi kailangan maging accountable and liable and yug health officials, whether past or present, ay maging accountable din. So iyon yung ine-expect kong tutukuying ng Blue Ribbon committee.

Q: Ano yung nakikita ninyog realistic solutions to address this fake news?

SRH: I think yung hearing naman talaga ay mag-e-air talaga yung mga senador ng kanilang concerns, mga tanong, pero sa pamamagitan din ng hearing na iyon ay mas espasyo pa rin to say yung long standing advocacy natin na self-regulation in the mass media doon na rin sa social media, na magkaroon ng etika ang mga netizens, bloggers, moderators. Kasi meron talagang maling pag-uugali sa social media at meron ding tama. But never to strain to the area of censorship because media remains the fourth estate, maybe social media is fourth and a half, or a fifth estate kasi may pagkaiba rin ang mundo na yun. In any case those of us who are in public service we have recourse strong enough like libel laws; I don't think there's a need for a right of reply, because we are already, any of us working, meron nang sapat na space to air our grievances and never dapat kumain iyon sa freedom of speech, freedom of expression ng ating mamayan?

Q: How about a legislation on fake news?

SRH: That I think could be helpful but still secondary doon sa development of a public, civic and political culture, proper attitude and behaviors in social media. Of course medyo hybrid animal yung paano dapat kumilos ang gobyerno sa larangan ng social media?

Q: That's the next question. Can you use the same standards o dapat mataas ang standards for the government?

SRH: Dapat, yes. I was going to sat that those of us who work in government, kahit kami sa legislature at may I say lalo na yung nasa executive, dahil hawak nila ang public funds na galling sa buwis ng mamamayan, kapag sila mismo ang nagmamanufacture at nagkakalat ng fake news, kapag sila mismo ang nagwe-weaponize ng social media laban sa mga kritiko o laban sa mamamayan at para sa layunin to cover up for possible official misdeeds, or to attack and undermine citizens and netizens in the exercise of their freedom of expression, I think we should hold them to higher standards and that should be also be subject to disciplinary actions even by law.

Q: Can you put that in a piece of legislation?

SRH: The can be. It could be put in a new legislation and it could also be an amendment to an existing law in terms of anti-graft and corrupt practices act on the part of public officials and employees, kasi kapag ginamit namin ang public funds para atakihin yung mga itinuturing naming kaaway, that is graft and that is corruption.

Q: When you are in government you wield this power, these sources and if you misuse them to target specific people...iyon yung dapat nila i-penalize.

SRH: Yes. Kasi entitled na nga kami by reason of our mandate, our position, kapag naging abusado kami that should be subject of a more severe disciplinary actions.

Q: On the BBL

SRH: Actually I felt in the consultations in Cotabato City and Marawi City, the focus was really more the Bangsamoro Basic Law than federalism kasi ang tagal ng pangarap itong self-governance in the current ARMM and the future anticipated Bangsamoro, exhilarating ang Cotabato consultation hearing kasi unanimous support hindi lang from the small groups, pati yung kinatawan ng archbishop, madre, also the Lumads; and the net day yung Marawi hearing was also exhilarating for different reasons kasi doon nagsimula yung debate at yung problematize. At very important yung issue flagged by Ka Nene, yung constitutionality na kaya ba natin talagang magkaroon g parliamentary form of government under a presidential form of government? Sinimulan nang idebate iyon sa Marawi hearing, and then itinuloy ni former Justie Azcuna sa hearing muli sa senado, where he said "I examined the bills including the Bangsamoro Transition Commission version walang constitutional infirmity." And in fact ngayon pa lang meron na tayong ginagawa na hybrid version.

Q: So BBL first?

BBL first, isa ako sa kanya doon. BBL first then the Bangsamoro people will decide on it in a referendum or a plebiscite. On a parliamentary model based also on a sultanate model, hindi yung kapag inuna ng gobyerno ang federalism - it's like putting the cart before the horse - anong mangyayari? Even all of us from Visayas and Luzon will also vote on Bangsamoro. So pagsasantabi na naman sa primary role nila na mag-decide on their own fate.

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