ISLAMABAD: Facing possibly the toughest moment in the court of people, the PPP-led coalition government approved on Wednesday what is being described here as a ‘mini-budget’ which includes some politically risky taxation measures of over Rs65 billion.
These will be taken to parliament for approval by the government in a bid to share the political burden and also backlash.
The measures, to be implemented from January next year, were approved by a meeting of the cabinet presided over by Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani.
These include imposition of a 10 per cent flood surcharge on income tax paid by individuals for a period of six months and an increase in the special excise duty on luxury items from one per cent to two per cent. These measures are estimated to yield over Rs40 billion.
The cabinet also approved a draft of the reformed general sales tax (RGST) bill.
“Taxpayers over the exemption threshold of Rs300,000 who pay income tax will be subjected to the flood surcharge,” Finance Minister Dr Abdul Hafeez Sheikh said at a press conference also addressed by Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira and Interior Minister Rehman Malik.
Dr Sheikh, however, did not mention that the flood surcharge would also be imposed on withholding tax paid by various businesses which, economic experts believe, will pass it on to end-consumers.
What the government did not announce is that the RGST bill also proposes withdrawal of tax exemptions on agriculture and textile sectors.
The government decided to continue GST exemptions on food items. The rate of GST on sugar will be revised to 15 per cent from the current eight per cent.
The tax on telecommunication will come down to 15 per cent from the existing 19.5 per cent.
When asked why had the government failed to impose tax on agricultural income, Dr Sheikh said: “Personally speaking, I am in favour of taxing the rich, but the Constitution does not allow the federal government to do so because it is a provincial subject”.
He said the RGST draft had been prepared in consultation with the provinces as under the Constitution collection of tax on services was a provincial jurisdiction and the federal government, if asked by all or any province to collect the tax, would return the entire money so earned to the respective province.
“We are expecting that the current session of parliament will approve the bill before the end of the current year,” the finance minister said, adding that these revenue measures would be finalised after approval by parliament.
“Parliament will also give final nod to the RGST bill seeking withdrawal of exemptions and introduction of a singular rate,” he added.
Dr Sheikh said that about Rs10 billion would be generated from an increase in special excise duty on luxury items like cosmetics, cigarettes, soft drinks, etc, Rs27-31 billion from the 10 per cent flood surcharge and Rs25 billion from withdrawal of GST exemptions on goods and services.
The proposed bill seeks a reduction in the GST rate to 15 per cent from 17 per cent, doing away with multiple rates, increasing the retailers’ exemption threshold from Rs5 million to Rs7.5 millions and expanding the narrow tax base.
Powerful lobbies which enjoyed exemptions would now have to pay their share of taxes, the finance minister said. Justifying the imposition of taxes, he said the government needed Rs250-275 billion for rehabilitation of over two million flood-affected people -- Rs160 billion for cash assistance to the flood-affected families, Rs7 billion for farmers in the form of free seeds and fertilisers and Rs3 billion subsidised credit to the affected people.
As per donors’ estimates, Dr Sheikh said, the government also needed $3 billion over a period of three years for rehabilitation of federal and provincial infrastructures affected by the floods.
A senior FBR official was of the view that the revenue measures would increase tax-to-GDP ratio to 12 per cent from the current nine per cent. But, he said, this estimate depended on 100 per cent compliance level as against the current 30 to 40 per cent.
During the cabinet meeting, ministers belonging to the Muttahida Qaumi Movement strongly opposed the decision to enforce RGST and flood surcharge.
Talking to reporters, Dr Farooq Sattar, deputy convener of the party and Minister for Overseas Pakistanis, said: “The new taxation measures are going to open floodgates of a tsunami of price hike.”
He said the MQM had not been taken into confidence by the government and “we will continue to oppose the move both in parliament and outside”.
Economic experts criticised the taxation measures. “This is a mini-budget which will lead to price hike and fuel inflation across the board,” former finance minister Salman Shah said.
He said that instead of curtailing its rising expenditures, the government was financing these through additional revenue measures.
Former chief economist Dr Pervez Tahir suggested that instead of imposing the flood surcharge across the board, the government should have limited it to higher income groups.