Meralco v. Province of Laguna G.R. No. 131359, May 5, 1999 306 SCRA 750 (1999)

Facts:  Certain municipalities of the Province of Laguna by virtue of existing laws then in effect, issued resolutions through their respective municipal councils granting franchise in favor of petitioner for the supply of electric light, heat and power within their concerned areas. In 1991, RA 7160, otherwise known as the “Local Government Code of 1991,” was enacted to take effect on 01 January 1992 enjoining local government units to create their own sources of revenue and to levy taxes, fees and charges, subject to the limitations expressed therein, consistent with the basic policy of local autonomy. Pursuant to the provisions of the Code, respondent enacted an Ordinance imposing a tax on businesses enjoying a franchise. Petitioner paid the tax under protest. A formal claim for refund was thereafter sent by the petitioner to the Provincial Treasurer claiming that the franchise tax it had paid and continued to pay to the National Government. Petitioner contended that the imposition of a franchise tax under the said Ordinance contravened the provisions of P.D. 551. In 1995, the claim for refund of petitioner was denied. In 1996, petitioner filed with the RTC a complaint for refund, with a prayer for the issuance of a writ of preliminary injunction and/or TRO, against the Respondent. The trial court dismissed the complaint. Hence this petition.

Issue: Whether the imposition of a franchise tax under Provincial Ordinance authorized by RA 7160, otherwise known Local Government Code of 1991, insofar as petitioner is concerned, is violative of the non-impairment clause of the Constitution.

Held: No, the local governments do not have the inherent power to tax except to the extent that such power might be delegated to them either by the basic law or by statute. Presently, under Article X of the 1987 Constitution, a general delegation of that power has been given in favor of local government units. Under the now prevailing Constitution, where there is neither a grant nor a prohibition by statute, the tax power must be deemed to exist although Congress may provide statutory limitations and guidelines. The basic rationale for the current rule is to safeguard the viability and self-sufficiency of local government units by directly granting them general and broad tax powers. Nevertheless, the fundamental law did not intend the delegation to be absolute and unconditional; the constitutional objective obviously is to ensure that, while the local government units are being strengthened and made more autonomous, the legislature must still see to it that (a) the taxpayer will not be over-burdened or saddled with multiple and unreasonable impositions; (b) each local government unit will have its fair share of available resources; (c) the resources of the national government will not be unduly disturbed; and (d) local taxation will be fair, uniform, and just. The Local Government Code of 1991 has incorporated and adopted, by and large, the provisions of the now repealed Local Tax Code. The Local Government Code explicitly authorizes provincial governments, notwithstanding “any exemption granted by any law or other special law, . . . (to) impose a tax on businesses enjoying a franchise.”  Indicative of the legislative intent to carry out the Constitutional mandate of vesting broad tax powers to local government units, the Local Government Code has effectively withdrawn under Section 193 thereof, tax exemptions or incentives theretofore enjoyed by certain entities. The Code, in addition, contains a general repealing which all general and special laws, acts, city charters, decrees, executive orders, proclamations and administrative regulations, or part or parts thereof which are inconsistent with any of the provisions of this Code are hereby repealed or modified accordingly. These policy considerations are consistent with the State policy to ensure autonomy to local governments and the objective of the LGC that they enjoy genuine and meaningful local autonomy to enable them to attain their fullest development as self-reliant communities and make them effective partners in the attainment of national goals. The power to tax is the most effective instrument to raise needed revenues to finance and support myriad activities if local government units for the delivery of basic services essential to the promotion of the general welfare and the enhancement of peace, progress, and prosperity of the people. It may also be relevant to recall that the original reasons for the withdrawal of tax exemption privileges granted to government-owned and controlled corporations and all other units of government were that such privilege resulted in serious tax base erosion and distortions in the tax treatment of similarity situated enterprises, and there was a need for these entities to share in the requirements of development, fiscal or otherwise, by paying the taxes and other charges due from them.

 

While the Court has, not too infrequently, referred to tax exemptions contained in special franchises as being in the nature of contracts and a part of the inducement for carrying on the franchise, these exemptions, nevertheless, are far from being strictly contractual in nature. Contractual tax exemptions, in the real sense of the term and where the non-impairment clause of the Constitution can rightly be invoked, are those agreed to by the taxing authority in contracts, such as those contained in government bonds or debentures, lawfully entered into by them under enabling laws in which the government, acting in its private capacity, sheds its cloak of authority and waives its governmental immunity. Truly, tax exemptions of this kind may not be revoked without impairing the obligations of contracts. 14 These contractual tax exemptions, however, are not to be confused with tax exemptions granted under franchises. A franchise partakes the nature of a grant which is beyond the purview of the non-impairment clause of the Constitution.15 Indeed, Article XII, Section 11, of the 1987 Constitution, like its precursor provisions in the 1935 and the 1973 Constitutions, is explicit that no franchise for the operation of a public utility shall be granted except under the condition that such privilege shall be subject to amendment, alteration or repeal by Congress as and when the common good so requires.

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