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Bahamas will ‘pay savagely’ for VAT politics

Consultant fears VAT delay would lead to credit downgrading, loss of policy choices
  • Andrew Wilson and the Democratic National Alliance are against VAT. FILE

Guardian Business Editor

Published: Oct 01, 2013

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The Bahamas will “pay savagely” if plans to implement valued added tax (VAT) gets “bogged down in politics”, a consultant to the government has warned, suggesting that delays in implementing the new revenue measure could lead to serious fiscal woes.

Noting some of the negative response to the proposed new regime to date, Ishmael Lightbourne told Guardian Business that there is “no question” that the new tax regime would represent good fodder for political fireworks when the legislation is introduced in Parliament.

However, pointing to the situation in crisis-stricken Greece, Lightbourne said that The Bahamas’ choice is one of either implementing VAT – or some other revenue raising measure – or being forced to implement new taxes or expenditure cutbacks by “external forces”, like the southern European country.

“I think the essential issue is the country’s fiscal position which is consistently showing a deficit gap, and that is not getting better from our present tax regime, and we are putting ourselves further and further into deficits and national debt,” he said.

“In that position, my focus has always been that if we do not get off that path, we’ll be losing a chance to voluntarily make these changes in terms of expanding the revenue base or reducing the cost of government. When we can’t do that ourselves, external forces come in and impose certain conditions. If you look at Greece, Greece has been under IMF watch or care, and they are having to do things like cut some 12,500 public servants. Those are the types of issues we want to try to avoid.”

Highlighting a continuous “gap” between government’s revenues and expenditures in recent years that has led to a spiralling national debt, which stands at 60 percent of GDP and is projected to hit $4.8 billion by the end of this fiscal year, Lightbourne suggested that The Bahamas’ fiscal situation could take a turn for the worst if a further downgrade occurs as a result of international agencies perceiving that The Bahamas is not committed to fiscal reform, which would increase borrowing costs.

The situation to date is already “pretty dismal”, he highlighted in a recent presentation to the Bahamas Society of Engineers, with the government borrowing to pay administrative and operational expenses such as salaries racking up around $200 million in recurrent deficits alone per year as a result.

To date, it is unclear exactly how the official opposition, the FNM, will respond to the VAT plans. Earlier this year, former junior finance minister Zhivargo Laing suggested that had the party been re-elected during the last

general election, it would have implemented VAT within two to three years of taking office.

In a recent statement, FNM Chairman Darron Cash suggested there need to be more “public discussion” on VAT and the government was not doing a good job on the education process.

The Democratic National Alliance, headed by former FNM Minister Branville McCartney, has recently come out against the tax. In an email sent to supporters yesterday entitled “VAT will destroy us”, the party which ran a slate of candidates in the last election tells supporters that if VAT is implemented, The Bahamas “will never be the same”.

“The cost of living will be going up, the cost of your food, your cable bill and school fees!” said the party.

During an appearance on Guardian Radio’s “Coffee Break”, DNA Chairman Andrew Wilson charged that the tax will destroy the middle class and suggested the government consider a sales tax instead.

Lightbourne said: “You have to look in the real world of politics, any opportunity that presents itself for the opposition to catapult itself in the political arena, they will take. That’s the nature of politics. Now whether they will do that to the detriment of country and allow government to be the fall guy, I’m not sure, [but] that may be their strategy...”

The VAT consultant said that in a recent presentation to the Killarney Constituency Association on VAT, Opposition Leader and Killarney MP Hubert Minnis “made no comment.”

He said that a presentation on VAT to the entire parliament has “yet to come off” but he is hopeful that one can be made shortly.

“They need to be able to see the issues and challenges that we face as a country and how we go about resolving those issues. I’m still hoping that will happen so we can bring to their attention the kind of decisions that need to be made. No matter who is government these issues will present themselves and won’t go away.”

“It’s not VAT or nothing, it’s got to be VAT or something, in order to close this enormous gap we have growing by the year,” he added.

Pauline Peters, another newly-hired VAT consultant and a former head of Grenada’s inland revenue service who led the implementation of VAT in that country, told Guardian Business that while that country may remain challenged with reducing its debt burden, the introduction of VAT in 2010 in Grenada has been helpful.

“It has certainly raised additional revenue that can assist in that process (of reducing debt). One would recognize that the revenue is going to the consolidated fund and the government would prioritize with respect to how that is spent.

“There would’ve been areas that would’ve benefited from increased revenue, such as infrastructural development in the country, the social safety net would’ve been increased, and other financial issues that government would’ve been dealing with.”

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