Tuesday, August 12, 2014

What are the Bahamian people saying about value-added tax (VAT)

VAT – Permanent failure for the government?

The subject of value-added tax (VAT) has stirred up quite a bit of discussion on social media and in the public sphere. In fact, the emails which I received were quite enlightening, informative and thoughtful. There were many more questions raised as a result and in this vein I propose to relate some of them today for consideration.

Has the Ministry of Finance been presented with alternatives to VAT? If so, did it do a proper evaluation of them? Will implementing VAT ensure that we improve efficiency and eliminate the potential for fraud with regard to government revenue collection? Why has the government operated with deficit spending for 18 of the past 21 years with the exceptions being 2000, 2001 and 2008? I should add that during the time I served in Parliament (2002 to 2007) this trend continued so I do accept responsibility for not speaking out and challenging my colleagues at the time on it.

To this end, we were either ill-informed or ill-prepared to understand the basic principles of running a government and derelict in our duties because we did not understand that successive governments could not go on spending binges without reaching a day of reckoning which is where we are today.

Why would the current Governor of the Central Bank of Barbados Dr. Delisle Worrell, call VAT an anti-tourism tax and the VAT system in Barbados a mess?

Are there lessons to be learned from Barbados? Merton Moore, who headed the VAT Implementation Unit in Barbados, calls it the “Rolls-Royce of taxes; treat it with intelligence, integrity, care and respect and it is likely to reciprocate”.

Will the government be bringing the VAT experts from Barbados, which is most similar in economy, culture and population to enlighten the public on VAT?

What spending cuts have been put forward as we prepare to implement VAT?

Clearly, all and sundry are aware that the government needs additional revenue. In fact, the government needs enough revenue to eliminate the deficit spending. This figure is close to half a billion dollars.

What mechanisms are in place to collect the outstanding hundreds of millions of dollars owed to the government now by taxpayers? Does anyone truly believe VAT will solve the economic issues that the country faces? Or will implementing VAT buy time with the international agencies to appear as if we are doing something to address our growing debt and deficit spending?

VAT fraud is a major concern for European countries that are well-developed and have a history of compliance. The Bahamas has a large underground economy, thousands of illegal immigrants who live outside of the law and a history of not paying taxes, and up to $400 million in uncollected taxes. How are we going to collect VAT? Further, there is the argument that every other country that has implemented VAT has used it as a slush fund to enable more spending and borrowing. What makes the Bahamas any different given our track record for running up debt?

Successive administrations have taken the easy way out and chosen to stick their heads in the sand and hope that things get better without adhering to the best financial principles for good governance. Political expedience was more likely a driving factor in the decision making and not fiscal prudence and responsibility as our current state of affairs makes the case for this argument.

The government has been lackadaisical and complacent in collecting existing taxes. Moreover, existing elected officials are setting a bad precedent by being blatantly delinquent on their own existing taxes and financial responsibilities to government agencies and corporations. This does not bode well for setting an example in a democracy nor does it help to champion an argument in support of VAT that is palatable to a majority of Bahamians. Implementing VAT without remedying the precursor is a recipe for lawlessness in the future.

Moreover, if the government is serious about tax reform, it would implement the policies of existing tax collection methods as an immediate priority.

In exploring expenditure reduction, has there been serious consideration given to public service mutuals as currently used in the United Kingdom? Also, would energy sector reform potentially raise a large revenue stream on a recurring basis for the government? How can we afford to give public servants increases in salaries when the government is operating at a deficit? In many countries around the world, governments have reduced salaries of public servants to reduce the recurrent expenditure in an effort to close the gap.

We have an indebtedness issue in the Bahamas. Eighty percent of persons with checking accounts in The Bahamas have a balance of under $1,000. Doesn’t this factor into an unsuccessful VAT system reality? Are members of Parliament visiting their constituencies to listen to what the Bahamian people are saying about VAT? If they were, there would probably be a different legislative agenda. Will it be that the $30 to $40 million coming as proceeds of VAT are used through Social Services where a debit card will be issued to persons in need, the pre-qualifier for issuance conducted through Social Services and in a way that is susceptible to politics? If such is forecasted then we know what outcomes to expect. VAT will take at least 7.5 percent out of the economy. Is there a corresponding increase in gross domestic product (GDP) of say 10 percent to compensate? I know that’s a big dream given the facts.

The harsh reality for The Bahamas of our current state of affairs is that our national debt has climbed from $1.1 billion in 1993 to approximately $5.2 billion at June 30, 2014. In the past seven years our national debt has more than doubled from $2.5 billion in 2007 to $5.2 billion in 2014. We accept that this cannot continue.

Further, from 2007 to 2014, the GDP of The Bahamas grew by only $1 billion. This means that in the last seven years we had stagnant growth along with excessive spending. Is VAT going to fix this problem? I put it to the ordinary person that VAT alone will not be enough. Moreover, we can find an alternative revenue stream to VAT, along with radical expense reduction and a real commitment to changing our reckless fiscal ways.

The Bahamian people want to see the government succeed but recognize that this means the government needs to operate with either balanced budgets or surpluses. If the current administration is not prepared to find and implement the solutions, which in my view do not have to include VAT, then it will be at their peril and further plunge this country into an abyss of failure the likes of which can be seen in many countries in the region.

• John Carey served as a member of Parliament 2002 to 2007 and can be reached at johngfcarey@hotmail.com.

August 08, 2014