By AVA TURNQUEST
Tribune Staff Reporter
THE implementation of Value-Added Tax without a reduction in current revenue measures is a recipe for recession, former finance minister and economist Sir William Allen said yesterday.
Sir William said that a 2014 roll out of the new tax system was “not doable”, and likely to result in disappointment and frustration for both the government and the taxpayers.
He maintained that the economy was still “too weak” for an increase of the minimum wage as a way to offset the “pain” of VAT.
Sir William said: “Economic performance is very weak, the economy has not yet recovered from the 2007/2008 period. It is still very weak and the recovery is very anaemic. An increase to minimum wage will be contrary to improvement in the economy, it would work against the improvement of the economy. You have to consider the timing.”
He added: “I agree that VAT will not be without pain, because the very nature of VAT, it’s going to impact everybody in society.
The Government is proposing to implement VAT on July 1, 2014, at a rate of 15 per cent, with the hotel industry to be subject to a lower 10 per cent rate. The Government’s White Paper on tax reform proposes to exempt those companies with an annual turnover of $50,000 or less from having to pay VAT.
Sir William called on the government to clarify whether or not it intended to reduce current taxes to make room in the economy for VAT, adding that whether or not officials could strike a balance between existing taxes and the new structure would ultimately determine the strategy’s success.
“The public is not expecting to pay the same level of custom’s duties along with everything. If that is so, there is gonna be hell to pay in this economy.”
“They’re not speaking to that clearly enough.”
Another worrisome component of the government’s VAT initiative is it’s timeline, according to Sir William, who posited that an ideal roll out would be three to five years.
He said: “My concern with the VAT is that they are seeking to put in place much too short a schedule. I don’t think that sufficient time has been given to putting it in place – to put into effect a VAT system by July 1, 2014, with the best of intentions, that is not doable in my view.”
Sir William said: “It is not doable, or if it is done it will be very inefficient and it’s going to lead to considerable disappointment on (government’s part) in terms of revenue that they collect and a lot of frustration on the part of the taxpayers.”
While Sir William noted that it was obvious the government was hard pressed to close the some three per cent gap between GDP revenue and expenditure, he maintained that it was highly improbable that the government could recoup that figure within the 2014/2015 fiscal year.
Sir William said: “You know what they do when you can tell something is wrong in an economy– if you look at the buildings or parks and they’re not maintained and if you listen to people and they’re not being paid - that’s how you know something is wrong, that’s an indication of fiscal pressure, money pressure.”
“And in light of that it’s going to be difficult to see how they are going to reduce their expenditure. There is going to be pressure for further expenditure.”
Pointing to the cost of the government’s anti-crime initiatives, which he commended, Sir William said: “I see nothing that permits them to reduce their expenditure, I don’t see any possibility on the horizon that permits for that.”
Sir William said: “I think there’s a very valid rationale for putting [VAT] in place, the government is running a capital deficit and a current account deficit. The current account deficit is the most worrisome because that means that your revenue is not covering your ordinary expenses.
He said: “In the context of a household, if you have to borrow money to pay your rent you’re in trouble. If you have to borrow money to buy food you’re in trouble - that’s a current account expense.”
He added: “That’s a big number, if you consider a GDP of say $9 billion dollars, so that three per cent you’re talking about $270 million. You have to do something about that, it’s not a way that you can continue to operate for a long period of time and in fact we’ve been running like that for much too long.”
Nearly eight months after the release of the Government’s White Paper on Tax Reform, the former finance said he was still unimpressed with the PLP administration’s reform strategy.
Back in July, Tribune Business reported that Sir William was “doubtful” that the Government will hit the target timelines for its two key fiscal objectives – the introduction of Value-Added Tax (VAT) and eliminating the fiscal deficit by the 2015-2016 Budget year.
Sir Allen said that while he would prefer an income tax, the Bahamas has already sold itself as a “tax haven”.
“We boast,” he said, “all our marketing has been ‘no income tax’, and there is a certain fear in certain quarters that once you establish an income tax it’s only a matter of time before it impacts [offshore finance].
Sir William said: “We seek as much as we can to exclude the offshore sector from this tax on the assumption that one of the reasons why they come here is that they come to avoid income tax. One can argue whether that continues to be a valid position, but a lot has changed in the Bahamas.”