VAT How we got here
A note to Hubert Minnis
By CANDIA DAMES
Guardian News Editor
Nassau, The Bahamas
Amid what appears to be a growing public tide against the July 1, 2014 implementation of value-added tax (VAT), Free National Movement (FNM) Leader Dr. Hubert Minnis has finally released a position on this contentious issue.
It came as pressure grew within his party for the official opposition to make a clear statement on what would be the most dramatic shift in tax policy in decades.
The statement Minnis came up with is stunningly shallow. It lacks intellectual rigor and shows a startling lack of vision and leadership, all of which we desperately need at this stage of our development.
That is surprising in the sense that he should have access to the facts and to sound advice from qualified and knowledgeable people within his own party.
Given how long it took him to release a statement, he should have had adequate time to formulate a more reasoned position that could be taken seriously and add value to the ongoing discussion on tax reform.
But given his record on matters of serious import (for example, multiple positions on gambling), no one should be surprised that his sole approach is to attack the government on its plans without presenting a well thought out contribution to this growing debate with accompanying proposed policy alternatives.
It seems once again that the opposition leader has gauged the direction of the wind and formulated his position based on the mood of the country. But be mindful that his position could shift again with any sudden temperature change or change to the national tone.
Minnis, who 18 months ago sat as a minister of government, called on the current administration to immediately “come clean to the people, and to explain, precisely and clearly what the circumstances are which have prompted this sudden lurch towards the imposition of VAT”.
It is worrying that the official opposition leader does not know the answer to this question.
Minnis is operating as someone who only entered the political arena in May 2012, distancing himself from the actions of the former administration.
He pretends instead to be blind to the fiscal circumstances of the day, but more importantly to the fiscal realities that existed while he was a minister of government, and the decisions taken to address those realities.
While no one should excoriate the FNM leader for setting along his own path and defining his own leadership style, he and his party are saddled with their record in office.
They cannot run from the decisions taken by the FNM administration — the good and the bad ones.
If as opposition leader Minnis does not know what the circumstances are that have prompted this “sudden lurch towards the imposition of VAT”, he might be ignoring easily available facts.
Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) Chairman Bradley Roberts has gone as far as saying Minnis might be suffering a case of memory loss.
“How else [do you] explain his scolding for a debt crisis created by his own party?” Roberts asked.
“Or was Dr. Minnis asleep at the Cabinet table when his government approved, borrowed and spent over $2 billion in five years, running up the national debt and pushing the country into this current fiscal dilemma?”
If Minnis is not sure how we got to where we are, he might find it useful to do a bit of research and examine the facts of the country’s debt levels.
This might jog his memory.
In August 2011 when the international credit rating agency Moody’s downgraded its outlook for the Bahamian economy from stable to negative, it pointed to the significant run up in government debt levels in recent years and the country’s limited growth prospects.
Moody’s noted that debt rose steadily between 2000 and 2008, but over 40 percent of the increase occurred between 2009 and 2011.
Government debt at the end of June 2011 was estimated at $3.5 billion. It has continued to grow. It is projected to be $4.9 billion when the government implements VAT next July.
This is unsustainable. We are in crisis.
Had the Free National Movement been re-elected to office last year, we would have been facing the same urgent need to tackle our debt, and reform our narrow and inefficient tax system.
Before Minnis twists himself into an impossible situation and puts his credibility on the line, perhaps he ought to have a discussion with former Minister of State for Finance Zhivargo Laing, his former Cabinet colleague, who helped engineer fiscal policies under the Ingraham administration.
Laing has not hidden the fact that the FNM had planned to implement VAT within “two to three years” if it had won the election last year.
The PLP administration is seeking to do it at the start of its third year in office.
Laing said more recently, “In office, we certainly looked at implementing it and if returned to office would have given it early consideration. However, we would have also given it broad consideration in the context of the wider reforms to our tax system that we were already undertaking.”
So Minnis’ own party was eyeing what he now calls a “regressive” taxation system. He may wish to examine why his party also thought this regressive tax was the best option.
He now warns that VAT would “seriously impair the already weak, uncompetitive and struggling Bahamian economy and harm and diminish the quality of life of every Bahamian”.
Unlike Minnis, Laing does not run away from the fact that the Ingraham administration piled on the debt.
The pace was dizzying.
Laing noted in a speech to the Rotary Club of Freeport in August that, “A country can borrow to cover its deficits for a long time, for decades and decades.
“It can even do so increasing its debt to GDP ratio to extraordinary levels, above 100 percent, but the price to pay for this is reduced ability to afford products and services (education, infrastructure, technology, etc.) that could lend to a more prosperous, efficient and peaceful state.
“Minimizing deficit spending is good government policy, especially in times of economic growth.”
The former government has been sure to provide a clear explanation that the high level of borrowing was needed in the face of a dramatic downturn in the global economy.
That explanation has been arguable, as the PLP accused the Ingraham administration of taking actions to worsen an already bad situation.
While prime minister, Hubert Ingraham had said often in his last term that without borrowing the government would not have been able to do simple things, like pay the salaries of civil servants.
Minnis ought to know that we are now suffering the fallout of sky-high deficits and annual borrowing.
To be clear, the vast majority of the resolutions to borrow were approved in Parliament by the then opposition led by Perry Christie.
Nobody likes to hear of new taxes, and so VAT and tax reform was not a prominent theme of the 2012 general election campaigns.
Upon coming to office, the PLP itself feigned surprise at the state of public finances. With that excuse in hand, it continued to borrow, saying it needed to do so to deal with the problems it inherited from the Ingraham administration.
“The fiscal accounts are in much worse shape than we had expected as we came into office,” Prime Minister Christie told the House not long after the May 2012 general election.
“In our very short time in office, it has become clear to us that the previous administration has, through its actions and fiscal policies, constrained our room to maneuver.”
In May 2013, the Christie administration brought a resolution to the House of Assembly to borrow $465 million to finance the projected revenue shortfall in the 2013/2014 fiscal year.
This added to the $650 million the new government borrowed in its first year.
Government debt as a percentage of GDP is projected at 56.4 percent at the end of 2013/2014.
Christie advised that much of the money the government borrowed last year was required to cover unpaid financial commitments incurred during the Ingraham administration.
“The legacy of high public deficits and spiraling debt burden that we inherited is brutally onerous: almost one out of every $4 in revenue collected by the government must be allocated to pay the interest charges on the public debt and cover the debt repayment,” he said.
“Had we chosen to ignore the grave structural imbalance in the public finances, the debt would have continued to spin out of control.”
This year, the government will spend an estimated $230 million on debt servicing alone.
While it is true that the PLP claimed to have immediate but unrealistic answers to attack our fiscal and economic woes while on the campaign trail, it is not on its own responsible for the current state of affairs.
It matters not at this juncture who is to blame, however. What is required now is reform to arrest the growing unsustainable debt levels.
As stated by Laing in his address to Rotary, “If you want to punish those who drive up cost through waste or bad decisions, then do that at election time, but know that the cost still has to be paid by the citizens.”
Minnis may wish to read and carefully consider that useful and informative address delivered by Laing.
In the speech titled “VAT and its implications for The Bahamas and the Bahamian economy”, Laing pointed out that the government needs cash and it needs it badly.
“We are in discussions about VAT implementation because there is a glaring reality confronting The Bahamas, which is that its income cannot pay for its operations,” Laing explained.
“It has not done so from The Bahamas became an independent nation. We have run deficits and financed those deficits with borrowings since 1974, when we ran a deficit of some $33 million. Incidentally, we had a surplus of about $3 million the year before that, the last such surplus seen on total budget performance.”
Laing continued, “In the wake of the crippling effects of the global recession of 2008 and the strain it put on the revenue of the government, our deficit spending has reached extraordinary levels, which is unsustainable, especially in light of the modest growth seen both in terms of the world’s economy and our domestic economy so dependent on it.
“The government needs money to pay for its expenses, and it needs money badly. That is why VAT is being discussed with the sense of urgency that it is being discussed today. In 1995 when the issue first arose, it was being discussed as a planning function; today it is a practical issue of money.”
The Nassau Guardian last week reported on the government’s proposed VAT bill and regulations. It is not clear when these will be brought to Parliament.
The debate cannot be vibrant and well informed without the official release of what is being proposed.
Minnis has said the PLP should immediately disclose to the Bahamian people the details of any economic studies and analyses either by domestic or international advisors or agencies that have led the government to this proposed course of action.
Many people are indeed awaiting the release of an economic impact study to show specific projections resulting from the VAT implementation, including the projected cost of living impact.
Financial Secretary John Rolle said last week that the cost of living is expected to rise between five and six percent in the first year. There were no details to show how these figures were arrived at, and there were no projections provided for cost of living increases in subsequent years.
This year is almost ended, and the government will have six months to clearly make its case, to seek to calm frayed public nerves, and cause for a smooth implementation of the new tax system.
That is ambitious.
Anecdotal evidence suggests the government is losing, not gaining support from the public on its push toward the implementation of VAT.
Its marketing of the initiative is on shaky ground, and it is only now just starting its public education campaign.
While there is an urgent imperative to act, it appears that on its current track, the new tax system could be off to a chaotic and undesirable start — a difficult birth, as we opined here previously.
What the government needs now is a more community based VAT campaign and a bit more time to get the message out.
It might be in the interest of everyone to push off the implementation date by a few months. It would allow the business community and consumers to better digest the details of VAT.
And perhaps it would give the opposition leader a bit more time to better understand how we got to where we are.
We hope it would also give the government a little more time to present a tax reform package that has buy-in from the opposition.
On a matter this grave, such a buy-in could only be in the national interest.