Palace denies 'pressuring' Recto to resign

MANILA -- Malacañang on Tuesday denied any involvement in the resignation of Senator Ralph Recto as chairman of the Senate committee of ways and means.

Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said Malacañang did not pressure the senator to resign his committee chairmanship, saying that his decision was his own.

"The decision to resign by Senator Recto is his own prerogative. We didn't have any hand there," Lacierda said.

On Monday, Recto tendered an irrevocable resignation and withdrew his highly-criticized committee report on the sin tax measure. He said he would want to give his successor a freehand to draft a new report on the bill.

Sin tax reform advocates charged Recto of having conflict of interest by proposing a "watered-down" version of the sin tax bill citing the presence of $300-million Philip Morris plant in Tanauan City in Batangas, the senator's home province.

Recto has been in a hot seat after presenting an apparent watered-down version of the sin tax bill with projected revenues of P15 billion to P20 billion, way lower than the P60 billion version of the Department of Finance and the P31 billion revenues from the version of the House of Representatives.

Malacañang said it hopes that Congress will pass a sin tax measure that would address and sufficiently fund the universal healthcare program of the administration.

Lacierda, however, said the Palace is letting Congress to work on the timeline for the passage of the measure.

He added that they would consult with their allies in the Senate on what to do following Recto's withdrawal of his committee report.

Lacierda, meanwhile, refused to comment on the claims of Presidential Legislative Liaison Office (PLLO) Secretary Manuel Mamba that several senators accepted bribes to submit a watered-down version of the sin tax bill.

Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile has challenged Mamba to substantiate his claims or else issue an apology.

Lacierda said he has yet to speak to Mamba but said that the Palace is willing to cooperate in any investigation into the allegation.

"We will ask Secretary Mamba on that and if there's an investigation, we would cooperate," he said.

In the House of Representatives, Incoming Transportation and Communications Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya said he continue to push for his own version of the sin tax bill following Recto's withdrawal of his committee report.

"I want my version (of the sin tax bill) passed. In fact, I wanted my original version approved. The revenue proposed there is P60 billion," Abaya, chairman of the House committee on appropriations, said.

Abaya, however, will no longer be able to defend the House version of the sin tax measure. He is set to leave the House to assume his post as Department of Transportation and Communication chief next month.

"It all ends up in the bicam (bicameral conference committee). There are more able-bodied persons (in the House) to take it up there," he said.

Abaya stressed that reforms in healthcare is a more important issue than the revenues, which the government stands to gain from higher sin taxes.

"Definitely, we want to have more deterrence to smoking and drinking. The revenue is only a consequence of it," he said.

Earlier, Recto warned that excessive taxation on tobacco and liquor could lead to smuggling.

But Abaya said that smuggling is a governance issue, which should only pressure the Bureau of Customs and the Bureau of Internal Revenue in running after smugglers.

"It's a governance issue. It should not be related to this. If smuggling is discussed in sin tax, it doesn't mean you shouldn't push for reforms," he added.

A group pushing for the passage of the sin tax law, meantime, said that there remains no valid reason to delay the passage of the sin tax bill following Recto's withdrawal of his committee report.

According to Health Justice, the determination of government leaders to pass the sin tax bill must not taper given the recent development.

"Tobacco will kill an estimated one billion people in the 21st century, in absence of aggressive action by government to advance tobacco control," asserted the group.

The group said the next head of the powerful committee must strongly consider the health aspect of the bill.

They said this is because about 240 Filipinos die every single day due to tobacco-related diseases, according to the Department of Health.

"It is important to keep in mind that the protection of our countrymen's health and wellbeing is the priority," said the Health Justice.

"This is what the next Committee Chair should focus on. He or she must be able to heed the call of the people for a sin tax bill that will address the growing epidemic of tobacco-related diseases in this country," added the group.

The sin tax bill is being eyed by health advocates as an important measure that would lead to increased prices of tobacco saying an expensive tobacco product would make it less accessible to the poor and youth sectors. (Jill Beltran/Kathrina Alvarez/HDT/Sunnex)

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