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Legislator asked to account for P857 million in tobacco excise tax

By Orly Guirao | Correspondent

DAGUPAN CITY—Five years after receiving the sum of P857 million as the local government’s share from the burley and native tobacco excise tax, former Pangasinan Rep. Mark Cojuangco has yet to account in full how the money was spent.

The tobacco excise tax he received for the Fifth District of Pangasinan is bigger than the so-called missing P600-million fertilizer-subsidy fund that in time became the much-publicized fertilizer scam under the Arroyo administration.

Cojuangco would not directly address questions posed by a farmers’ group, called the Save Pangasinan Movement Inc. (SPMI), on how he spent the money intended for the tobacco farmers. They particularly asked if the money was used to establish the Dairy Farm in Laoac town, which has allegedly become a white elephant, unable to pay its own employees.

In his defense, Cojuangco said he established the dairy farm in 2004 with funds from his priority development assistance fund (PDAF).

“If ever, the tobacco tax was used for maintenance,” he told tobacco farmers in a paid advertisement published recently in a local weekly newspaper, The Sunday Punch.

But instead of accounting for each peso spent, Cojuangco told the farmers to ask Gov. Amado T. Espino Jr. how the province spent its 10-percent share of the tax bonanza.

Manuel Tolentino and Fleurdeliz Cabalteja, president and secretary-general, respectively, of SPMI, also quizzed Cojuango for supporting the allegedly unfair sharing scheme of the tobacco excise tax, which was passed by Congress when the legislator was chairman of the Congressional Oversight Committee on Tax Reform.

Under Republic Act (RA) 8240, congressmen were allocated the lion’s share of 80 percent of the tax, while host provinces, including Pangasinan, were allocated a 10-percent share and the producing towns and cities, another 10 percent.

They compared the sharing scheme of RA 7171, known as the Virginia tobacco excise-tax law, authored by then Ilocos Sur Rep. Luis “Chavit” Singson, which provides for a more equitable and realistic sharing scheme of 30 percent for the provinces, 40 percent for the towns or cities and 30 percent for congressmen.

In the heat of the campaign period leading up to the May 10, 2010, national and local elections, then-President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo signed an executive order releasing P6.37 billion to provinces that grew burley and native tobacco, led by Pangasinan and Isabela.

The one-time windfall represented the share of local governments from incremental excise taxes on burley and native tobacco products for 10 years, from 1997 to 2007, in compliance with the law mandating a sharing of the excise tax.

Of the amount, congressmen in whose districts were towns that grew the tobacco got the lion’s share of P5.09 billion, while provinces, cities and towns in their territories had to share among themselves only P1.273 billion.

This meant 80 percent went to legislators and only 10 percent each for the host province and the producing towns and cities.

Under that scheme, the provincial government of Pangasinan was allotted a share of P216,171,317. The same amount was allocated to 26 towns, plus the city of Urdaneta in four tobacco-growing congressional districts in central and eastern Pangasinan.

The bulk of the money, a total of P 1.725 billion, was released to the congressmen of the Third, Fourth, Fifth and Sixth districts of Pangasinan.

Cojuangco, who hails from the Fifth District made up of Urdaneta City plus eight towns, allegedly got the lion’s share of more than P857 million.

Third District Rep. Rachel Arenas was second with a share of P491.6 million, while Sixth District Rep. Marlyn Primicias Agabas got P375 million.

Rep. Gina de Venecia (Fourth District) received the smallest amount of P99 million from the tax bonanza.

The congressmen received their shares in the second quarter of 2010 under a monetization scheme allegedly engineered by Cojuangco and just in time for the 2010 elections.

The share of the provincial government was budgeted for spending the following year of 2011.

When the funds were released, Malacañang reminded provincial officials that the tobacco tax must only be used for cooperative projects that enhance better-quality farm products and increase farmers’ income and support livelihood projects, particularly the development of alternative farming systems, and agro-industrial projects like postharvest and processing facilities that will eventually be owned by tobacco farmers.

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