By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Government will move to quarterly budget reporting before year-end to match the Fiscal Responsibility Bill's "ethos" and better inform Bahamians about the fate "of their tax dollars".
Marlon Johnson, the Ministry of Finance's acting financial secretary, told Tribune Business that the enhanced reporting - which will provide taxpayers with four updates per year - was intended to fulfill the Government's commitment to greater fiscal accountability and transparency.
"The deputy prime minister [KP Turnquest] has committed to it, so we're putting together the appropriate format," he explained. "That is a commitment made, and what we're working towards doing.
"It's in line with the Government's commitment, as articulated by the Deputy Prime Minister, to move to more openness and transparency. The Government also intends some time soon to introduce Fiscal Responsibility legislation, and that will require a heightened degree of openness and transparency on fiscal matters.
"Going into quarterly reporting will be consistent with the founding ethos of that legislation, and so citizens are alerted to Budget trends and know what is happening with their tax dollars - both revenue and expenditure."
The Fiscal Responsibility Bill is intended to transform the Government's fiscal discipline by locking it into specific deficit targets and longer-term debt ratios, while boosting transparency and accountability in the management of its financial affairs through enhanced public scrutiny.
Mr Turnquest, in a previous interview with Tribune Business, said the Government planned to bring that Bill to Parliament once the latter returns from its summer recess, having failed to make the legislative agenda before the break.
This is likely to coincide with the switch to quarterly fiscal reporting to the Bahamian public, with Mr Johnson predicting that the first one will be released "a few weeks following the end of September" - which marks the close of the 2018-2019 Budget's first quarter.
Currently, the Government only gives a full fiscal accounting bi-annually - at the time of the annual May Budget, and again in the mid-year Budget, which is usually unveiled around February or about eight months into the period.
"We haven't finalised the details," Mr Johnson said, "but it's to give persons a clear snapshot of where we are from a revenue standpoint, where we are from an expenditure standpoint, where they stand against projections and what the historical trends would have been.
"It will also explain any anomalies and disparities between what was forecast and what they see. That's the ambition. It helps everybody because we have to be sharper in how we do and present the information going forward. It creates more citizen engagement as persons are more regularly updated with what's happening in the Budget."
Given the shift towards quarterly fiscal reporting, Mr Johnson said the Government was unlikely to provide any updates and figures on its initial 2018-2019 performance until that first release, even though it will now have the first 12 percent VAT returns.
He added that the VAT 'zero rating' of breadbasket foods and many pharmaceutical products had "surprisingly been fairly smooth".
"There was a lot of concern and consternation, but we got a considerable amount of co-operation from retailers, wholesalers, the pharmacy association and Chamber of Commerce," Mr Johnson said.
"We were able to work through the guidelines with them. We've had no material complaints. In talking to retailers, wholesalers and the Chamber, it seems to have gone relatively smoothly."
On the consumer side, Mr Johnson said there had been "nothing material" brought to the Ministry of Finance's attention. "We've asked consumers to check their receipts, and there have been one or two complaints where the receipt was not clear," he added.
"We ask consumers to stay vigilant, to ask questions, and remember there's a consumer welfare department to engage as they see fit if they don't understand a transaction. We want consumers to feel empowered in those circumstances to ask questions."