On February 18, 2002, Smart filed a special civil action for declaratory relief for the ascertainment of its rights and obligations under the Tax Code of the City of Davao, which imposes a franchise tax on businesses enjoying a franchise within the territorial jurisdiction of Davao. Smart avers that its telecenter in Davao City is exempt from payment of franchise tax to the City on the following grounds: (a) the issuance of its franchise under Republic Act (R.A.) No. 7294 subsequent to R.A. No. 7160 shows the clear legislative intent to exempt it from the provisions of R.A. 7160; (b) Section 137 of R.A. No. 7160 can only apply to exemptions already existing at the time of its effectivity and not to future exemptions; (c) the power of the City of Davao to impose a franchise tax is subject to statutory limitations such as the in lieu of all taxes clause found in Section 9 of R.A. No. 7294; and (d) the imposition of franchise tax by the City of Davao would amount to a violation of the constitutional provision against impairment of contracts.
Respondents contested the tax exemption claimed by Smart. They invoked the power granted by the Constitution to local government units to create their own sources of revenue.
Is the Contract Clause, a limitation on the State’s power to tax?
Jurisprudence suggests that aside from the national franchise tax, the franchisee is still liable to pay the local franchise tax, unless it is expressly and unequivocally exempted from the payment thereof under its legislative franchise. The “in lieu of all taxes” clause in a legislative franchise should categorically state that the exemption applies to both local and national taxes; otherwise, the exemption claimed should be strictly construed against the taxpayer and liberally in favor of the taxing authority.
Republic Act No. 7716, otherwise known as the “Expanded VAT Law,” did not remove or abolish the payment of local franchise tax. It merely replaced the national franchise tax that was previously paid by telecommunications franchise holders and in its stead imposed a ten percent (10%) VAT in accordance with Section 108 of the Tax Code. VAT replaced the national franchise tax, but it did not prohibit nor abolish the imposition of local franchise tax by cities or municipalities.