Will the poor benefit from paying higher taxes?

by Audrey de Jesus/

Ibon graph.

Among the hyped claims of the Department of Finance (DOF) about the government’s tax reform package is how taxes paid by the poor will go back to them in the form of infrastructure projects and social services. The reality however is that the taxes will go largely to big-ticket infrastructure projects in and around the National Capital Region (NCR) that the poor will hardly benefit from.

TRAIN: easy money for the rich

Currently undergoing Senate deliberations, the Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion (TRAIN) bill is the first of five packages under the Duterte administration’s Comprehensive Tax Reform Program (CTRP). The DOF’s version of the CTRP aims to raise an additional Php157 billion in revenues per year, while the version passed by the House of Representatives (HOR) will raise Php130 billion.

Under TRAIN, there will be higher consumption taxes through the removal of value-added tax exemptions, such as on socialized and low-cost housing and power transmission; new excise taxes on fuel, sugar-sweetened beverages (SSB), and automobiles; and reduced personal income tax rates, estate taxes, and donor’s taxes.

Despite DOF claims that the poor benefit most from their tax reform program, the truth is that the poorest majority of Filipinos bear a heavier tax burden than the rich.

The poorest 60 million Filipinos will pay Php47.0 billion in additional taxes next year, or 2.3% of their combined family income of some Php2.0 trillion. Meanwhile, the highest income 40% will pay Php47.6 billion, or only 0.8% of their total family income of some Php4.1 trillion.

This means the highest income 40% who have twice as much income as the poorest 60% of Filipinos will be paying virtually the same amount in additional taxes. Measured as a share of their total income, the poorest 60% will pay three times as much as the highest income 40% including the richest Filipinos.

TRAIN to nowhere?

Aside from covering up how much the CTRP will burden the poor, the DOF claims that the poor will mainly benefit from these tax revenues, as these will be used for the government’s infrastructure program and social services.

Studying the 2018 Budget of Expenditures and Sources of Financing (BESF) that the Duterte administration submitted to Congress is revealing. The 2018 national government budget submitted to Congress presumptuously assumes that the TRAIN will be passed and implemented next year. Yet the government’s spending pattern is not consistent with the claim that TRAIN will benefit mainly the poor.

It is misleading for the DOF to say that the TRAIN is for funding infrastructure AND social services.  TRAIN is really about funding the infrastructure program, while much-needed social services continue to take a back seat, as seen in the proposed 2018 national budget.

The 2018 BESF shows that there is an exceptional 27.5% increase in infrastructure spending in 2018 to Php1.1 trillion from Php861 billion in 2017. The government reportedly needs an estimated Php8 to 9 trillion over the next five years, or Php1.6 to 1.8 trillion per year, to fund its ambitious “Build! Build! Build!” infrastructure program.  The Duterte administration is clearly counting on additional tax revenues to help fund this.

However, social services spending increases by only 5.4% including just a 5.2% increase in social welfare, a 5.8% increase in education, and a 9.2% increase in health, among others. These increases are unremarkable and follow the same trend as in previous budgets even before TRAIN.

The DOF itself also explains that government infrastructure spending will increase from 4.3% of the gross domestic product (GDP) in 2017 to 6.1% in 2022, i.e. a 1.8 percentage point increase. In contrast, over the same period, health spending will only marginally increase from 0.9% to 1.0%; social protection from 1.9% to 2.0%; and education from 4.4% to 4.9 percent. Cumulatively, spending in health, social protection and education will increase from 7.2% to 7.9%, or just a 0.7 percentage point increase.

There are actually even notable cuts to the social service budget. The housing budget will be markedly cut by 68.9 percent. Under the health budget, Department of Health (DOH) hospitals will see an average 24% cut in their maintenance and operating expenses, and many regional hospitals will see cuts of 30-40 percent. The budget for preventive health programs will be cut by Php16.7 billion or 52%, including those focusing on significant public health concerns like tuberculosis, malaria and HIV.

Infra for the poor?

The DOF claim that the much higher infrastructure spending will go primarily to the poor is also misleading.

Comparing the regional distribution of the government’s flagship infrastructure projects by value and poverty incidence by region, there is a general trend of higher infrastructure spending in regions of low poverty incidence, and of low infrastructure spending in regions of high poverty incidence.

For instance, the NCR has the lowest official poverty incidence of 3.9% but takes up the largest chunk of flagship projects at Php343 billion, while the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) with the highest official poverty incidence of 53.7% accounts for among the least flagship projects at just Php5.4 billion. Central Luzon (CL; Region III) and part of Southern Tagalog (ST; Region IV-A), which also have low poverty incidences of 11.2% and 9.2% respectively, are also among the top recipients of the flagship projects. (See Chart)

It may be argued that infrastructure spending has to consider the nature and degree of economic activity, population density, geographic conditions, and a host of other considerations. But none of these detracts from how infrastructure spending is biased away from poor regions and, indeed, is biased away from the kind of infrastructure projects that the poor directly need and will be directly using.

The flagship projects, which are concentrated in urban areas, especially in NCR, CL and ST, will mainly benefit big foreign and local corporations. Such targeted big-ticket infrastructure like mass transit, roads and bridges, railways, seaports, airports, communication and information, will primarily serve and boost the profit-making enterprises of these corporations that contribute little to develop and strengthen domestic industries.

Tax the rich, not the poor

As much as the DOF claims otherwise, the Duterte administration’s tax reform program is ultimately anti-poor and pro-rich. The poor majority will have to fork over more of their already meager incomes to pay higher consumption taxes. Revenues generated from these taxes will go towards infrastructure projects that hardly benefit them, while funding for much-need social services will be cut or remain stagnant.

Instead of further burdening the poor, the Duterte administration should be challenged to implement a genuinely progressive tax reform program and aggressively collect taxes from the wealthy and big corporations. It can raise hundreds of billions of pesos by increasing direct income taxes on the wealthiest Filipinos and by correctly collecting taxes especially on the biggest corporations.

The revenues generated from a progressive tax system should then fund infrastructure projects spread throughout the country that will support real development of local industry and agriculture. It should also be used for much-need social services and development that will truly benefit the poor. ###

Building destruction? Foreign creditors gain more from Duterte’s infra plan

by Arnold Padilla

#PeoplesSONA2017 / IBON Features — One of the anticipated highlights of President Rodrigo Duterte’s second State of the Nation Address (SONA) is his grand infrastructure plan dubbed “Build! Build! Build!” There are concerns that it would result in a heavy debt burden. The issue is valid. After all, the price tag of what economic managers call as the “boldest infrastructure program” ever is a whopping Php8 to 9 trillion.

Economic managers, however, assure the public that they have everything figured out. The plan is that government appropriations, not debt, will mainly fund the so-called “golden age of infrastructure.” The Finance department’s tax reform package aims to raise Php157 billion in additional revenues a year; the version passed by the House could generate Php130 billion.

At Php8 to 9 trillion, the annual cost of building infrastructure from 2017 to 2022 would be Php1.6 to 1.8 trillion. Clearly, the additional revenues from the tax package will not be enough even as it bleeds the poor dry.

In reality, the infrastructure program would be mostly debt-funded. But again, the public is being told that a debt crisis will not rear its ugly head. In fact, the Budget department expects that by the end of President Duterte’s term, the debt-to-GDP ratio would even fall to 38.1% from 40.6% in 2016.

Such optimism hinges on the economy not only sustaining its expansion but posting even more rapid growth. To outpace debt, the gross domestic product (GDP) must grow by 6.5 to 7.5% this year and 7-8% between 2018 and 2022.

It is tough to be as upbeat as administration officials given the structural weaknesses of the economy and amid a global crisis. For this year, debt watchers and creditors put Philippine GDP growth at 6.4 to 6.8% – below the range being hoped for by the economic managers. That’s the most bullish the projections could get.

Whatever rate the GDP grows by, the budget deficit is sure to increase as government ramps up infrastructure spending. The plan is to let the budget shortfall climb to 3% of GDP as infrastructure spending reaches as high as 7.4% of GDP.

While a bigger deficit means greater borrowing, there is supposedly no need to be anxious as the Budget department claims they will borrow in a fiscally sustainable way. Eighty percent of the deficit would be funded by domestic debt and only 20% foreign. Such borrowing mix lessens foreign exchange risks that could cause public debt to balloon.

Japanese and Chinese loans

But a review of what the Duterte administration has identified as its flagship infrastructure projects tells a different story. To be sure, the flagships – numbering 75 as of June – are just a fraction of the more than 4,000 infrastructure projects that government plans to do. They nonetheless represent the largest ones in terms of cost and are the top priorities for implementation.

Of the 75 flagship projects listed by the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA), 48 will be funded by foreign debt or official development assistance (ODA). Only 14 will be bankrolled through the national budget or General Appropriations Act (GAA). Just two projects are planned to be implemented via public-private partnership (PPP) while 11 have yet to be identified which mode to use.

As of June, only 53 out of the 75 flagships have estimated costs totaling PhpPhp1.58 trillion. Of the 53, 41 are ODA-funded projects worth Php1.40 trillion. The remaining Php181 billion would be funded through the GAA. In other words, almost 89% of the total cost of projects with already determined amounts will be paid for by foreign debt.

Just nine of the 41 ODA-funded flagship projects have identified donors/creditors, based on NEDA’s June list. These are Japan with three projects worth Php226.89 billion; China, three projects (Php164.55 billion); South Korea, two projects (Php14.06 billion); and World Bank, one project (Php4.79 billion).

The Japanese and Chinese are backing the Duterte administration’s largest mega-projects, an indication of how the two economic behemoths see “development cooperation” as one of the key arenas of their competition in the region. Japan is funding the Php211.46-billion PNR North 2 (Malolos-Clark Airport-Clark Green City Rail); Php9.99-billion Cavite Industrial Area Flood Management Project; and the Php5.44-billion Malitubog-Maridagao Irrigation Project, Phase II.

Meanwhile, China is bankrolling the Php151-billion PNR Long-haul (Calamba-Bicol); Php10.86-billion New Centennial Water Source – Kaliwa Dam Project; and Php2.70-billion Chico River Pump Irrigation Project.

Although not yet identified in the latest NEDA list, Japanese and Chinese loans are also being linked to other big-ticket rail projects. These include the Php134-billion PNR South Commuter Line (Tutuban-Los Baños); the Php230-billion Manila Metro Line 9 (Mega Manila Subway Project – Phase 1); as well as the Mindanao Rail Project, of which the first phase (Tagum-Davao-Digos) costing Php35.26 billion will be funded via the GAA.

Gains beyond interests

Over-reliance on debt is obviously problematic but by itself tapping concessional loans to build much needed infrastructure is not a wrong policy. Sadly, ODA is shaped not by genuine development cooperation but by the narrow agenda of lending governments and the corporate interests they represent. Thus, potential economic and social development gains for a borrowing country are greatly weighed down by bloated costs of ODA-funded infrastructure.

Big infrastructure lenders like Japan and China profit not only from the interests accruing from their loans to build rails and roads. The larger gains they make are from the conditionalities they tie to these loans such as requiring the Philippines to exclusively source from Japanese and Chinese firms the goods and services needed to build the rails and roads.

Lenders dictate the technology, design and construction of the infrastructure to accommodate their own suppliers and infrastructure firms. As such, Japanese and Chinese contractors are also favorably positioned to corner operation and maintenance contracts once the rail systems and other infrastructure are privatized under the Duterte administration’s hybrid PPP scheme.

Lastly, creditors also favor the development of infrastructure in areas where they have business interests. This explains the concentration of Japan-funded infrastructure in Central and Southern Luzon where export zones with Japanese investments are concentrated. China’s interest in building infrastructure in Mindanao is tied to its plantation and mining interests in the region.

All these make the cost of infrastructure development in the Philippines more expensive and the debt burden onerous. Tied loans for infrastructure development create commercial opportunities for Japanese and Chinese companies that are otherwise not available to them. In China’s case, infrastructure lending in poor countries is even used to create employment for their own workforce at the expense of local labor.

At a time of prolonged global recession and slowdown in profit rates of the industrial economies, these opportunities become even more important. Alas, these opportunities only arise by undermining the debtor’s own development needs.—IBON Features