This article first appeared in my weekly column with the Business Daily on June 3, 2018
The National Treasury tabled the Income Tax Bill 2018 which, among other actions, has the general thrust of taxing individuals and companies at higher rates than previously was the case. The focus here will be on the opposite ends of the financial spectrum: large companies with taxable income of more than KES 500 million and Micro and Small Enterprise (MSE) most of whom have fewer than 5 employees and generally operate informally, outside what government considers to be the tax net.
Treasury’s rationale for the new taxes and tax hikes is simple: government needs to raise more money in order to plug the fiscal deficit and reduce borrowing in the spirit of fiscal consolidation. But the core question should be: Are these tax hikes justified? With regards to the Corporate Tax, while it can be argued that large companies can afford to pay the 35 percent, the core question is, why? What will corporations get in exchange for the additional amount charged? Rather than approaching the income tax bill from a perspective of service enhancement, government is motivated by more aggressive revenue generation. Given the reality of high costs of doing business in Kenya, the proposed increases simply add another stone on an already heavy load. Perhaps if costs such as electricity, land and transport were more manageable, the effect of added costs in the form additional taxes would be less pronounced.
The proposed presumptive tax on the informal sector, of 15 percent payable by individuals with incomes below KES 5 million applying for single business permits, is unfair and short sighted. At the moment, government provides basically no services to MSEs to support their productivity, profitability and growth. Most MSEs operate in dilapidated shacks with no electricity, water and sanitation, and often next to open sewage and piles of garbage. Government, at both national and county level, seem unable to invest in supporting MSEs, yet here is government introducing a punitive new tax. The question MSMEs will have is, again, why? What will MSEs get in return for paying this new tax? The presumptive tax may motivate informal MSMEs to go further underground because they know they are the new tax target, and since most operate at a subsistence level, any additional cost will truly pinch. Thus, rather than creating an enabling environment for MSEs, government introduces a tax that will make it even riskier for MSEs to conduct business in an already difficult environment.
However, the strongest argument against the tax hikes is corruption and the flagrant lack of fiscal accountability. This Bill is being tabled in the context of one of the largest cases of the mismanagement of public funds Kenya has seen in recent years. Ergo, Kenyans will wonder whether these new tax hikes will improve service provision, or whether the money will be used to buy public officials new properties and cars after being diverted into personal accounts.
Unless government demonstrates that it is a responsible custodian of public funds, tax rates can continue to be escalated without translating into tangible benefits. Rather than scrutinise its own failings, government is being intellectually lazy and increasing tax on an already stretched private sector. Perhaps with some self-reflection and tough action within government itself, government would find it can live within its current means and need not saddle private sector with additional taxes.
Anzetse Were is a development economist; email@example.com