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Think of the Tax Amnesty as a Tax Jubilee

(Article published in the Sep 29,2004 issue of TODAY, Business Section)

For some reason or another, the offer of a tax amnesty, as part of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s bundle of proposals to address the national deficit problem, never enjoyed one hundred percent acceptance.  From the time it was initially suggested in general terms during the State of the Nation address last July to this September  when the proposal has become  concrete in the form of House Bill No. 2933, some sector or another has from time to time expressed opposition in some shape or form. 

Early last week, the Commissioner of Internal Revenue himself expressed reservations about extending tax amnesty to those taxpayers who have tax cases already pending in court.  All the time and effort exerted and expenses incurred in building the cases and, in prosecuting them would go to waste, so argues the good Commissioner, if the defendant taxpayers are permitted to escape the noose by simply taking the same rap on the wrist given to the less delinquent.

Senator Juan Ponce Enrile, reputed to be a tax practitioner and, if I am not mistaken, the Commissioner of Customs at one point during the tenure of President Ferdinand Marcos, is reported to have objected to that portion of the House bill that couples the filing of a Statement of Assets and Liabilities with the payment of the proposed amnesty tax of three percent.  At the Manila Overseas Press Club, last week, he is said to have condemned it as a “double tax on the people and a tax on capital”.


            Finally, just yesterday, House Minority Leader Francis Escudero called on his colleagues to reject tax amnesty reportedly claiming that “it only sends a negative impression to the tax-paying public and mocks the government’s sincerity in going after tax cheats.” He said to object to the feature of the bill making a taxpayer liable for perjury only if he files a Statement of Assets and Liabilities that is more than 30% off the mark.  Rhetorically, he is said to have asked, “Are they saying that it is accepted (sic) that one cheats as long as it’s below 30 percent?”

I have no problems with comments on House Bill No. 2933 relating to a provision or two.  All that is needed to remedy the defects pointed out is some tweaking and fine-tuning that could easily be done when House Bill No. 2933 is discussed on the floors of the House and the Senate, sooner or later (presumably sooner due to the Presidential certification), and then at the conference committee level. 

I have difficulty, however, accepting calls totally rejecting the idea of tax amnesty, because it is, for instances, “a bad signal” or as some members of the private sector said, “a moral hazard”

The general idea one gets from these objectors is that a tax amnesty permits the tax cheat to easily escape the consequences of his wrongdoing instead of severely punishing him for it.  That, according to them, is unacceptable.

To those who hold this sanctimonious view, I recommend the reading of Leviticus, Chapter 25, verses 8 to 54, to realize how they out-Moses Moses.  This section of the good book deals with the Year of Jubilee.

After counting off “seven times seven years” (seven in the Jewish biblical literature, as we know, signifies something important e.g. seventh day of rest), the people of Israel is told by Yahweh to “have the trumpet (the latin is jubeleus, meaning horn, hence the English jubilee) sounded throughout all your land.  And you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants”.   Liberty from what and from whom, considering that Israel is by this time already in the desert away from Pharaoh?

The answer is, “It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and everyone of you to your family.”  It is a time of coming home; a time of restoration to the original state of things.  A time of remission; a time of breaking free from bondage.

A time when the disruptions of the last fifty years are corrected and made right.  Just a few examples:  If anyone fell into difficulty and was constrained to sell his land, his next of kin was entitled to redeem it.  But, “if there is not sufficient means to recover it, what was sold shall remain with the purchaser until the year of jubilee; in the jubilee, it shall be released and the property shall be returned.”  The reason? Because the land is not “owned” by anyone but is the Lord’s.  “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants,” said Yahweh.

Restoration is commanded, at the jubilee, not only of material property, but also of human dignity. Thus, “if anyone who are dependent on you become so impoverished that they sell themselves to you, you shall not make them serve as slaves.  They shall remain as hired or bound laborers.  They shall serve with you until the year of the jubilee.  Then, they and their children with them shall be free from your authority; they shall go back to their own family and return to their ancestral property.”

I am, of course, not advocating, by citing the Torah, the scrapping of the Torrens system, nor am I seeking to disrupt the industrial peace that is the present fruit of the Labor Code, although my heart still throbs to the clarion call of Rerum Novarum and Laboren Excerns.

         My thesis is simply that to gain acceptance, particularly by those who feel offended by the propect that the evil doer will be having it easy, the proposal of a tax amnesty ought to be subjected to what Howard Gardner calls, a “representational redescription”.  It is about time tax amnesty is seen outside of the constricting parameters of the legalistic forms that depict it as something in derogation of the sovereign’s right, a giving up of what the state is entitled to. We should begin to look at it as a call for everyone to cleanse themselves in contrition and honesty, for who of us can really claim that we have fully rendered to Caesar what is Caesar’s?.  No time is better than now for us all to remember and return to the original command that “you shall not cheat one another” and that “you shall observe my statutes and keep my ordinances”.