Cut in states’ share in tax may become next big flashpoint
The issue of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) compensation controversy may have been laid to rest for now, but the Centre and the states, on opposing sides in that debate, find themselves in a similar position again -- this time over the ongoing discussion on a possible review of the share of states in the divisible pool of revenue.
The Union government has asked the 15th Finance Commission to review the share of states in the divisible pool of taxes, and possibly reduce it from the current 42%, a person familiar with the matter said on condition of anonymity. This move has been fiercely opposed by the states in the past, and several states have made a representation to raise their share in total taxes to 50%.
Both facts are known, but the GST compensation controversy, although resolved, may make the task of the Finance Commission difficult. It is expected to submit its final report on the devolution in the next few days.
“The Centre brought in additional terms of reference, with a proposal to further reduce states’ share from the divisible pool, which will virtually leave nothing. If it is done, it will be unethical and a blow to fiscal autonomy of states,” said Kerala finance minister TM Thomas Isaac.
At the core of the debate is what was five years ago hailed as a major boost to federalism.
The previous 14th Finance Commission, in a historic step in 2015, sharply increased the states’ share in the divisible pool – the repository where all taxes are collected before being divided between Centre and states – to 42% from 32%, holding that tax devolution should be the primary source of transfer of funds to states.
Now, the Centre wants that reviewed. The coronavirus disease and its impact on lives and livelihoods seem to have lent some urgency to the Centre’s case. “The Centre’s contention is that it bears a disproportionately high amount of expenditure in centrally sponsored schemes and there are lingering revenue pressures due to the Covid situation,” the person cited above said.
Chairman of the 15th Finance Commission NK Singh declined to comment on the issue due to reasons of confidentiality.
The Constitution, through Article 280 to 281, provides for finance commissions, set up every five years, a mechanism for division of taxes and revenues vertically i.e. between the Centre and states, and horizontally, i.e. among all states, based on their levels of development, prosperity and regional needs.
The 15th Finance Commission was constituted in November 2017 to recommend transfer of resources for the 2020-25 period. It had to submit two reports. The first, consisting of recommendations for the financial year 2020-21, was tabled in Parliament on February 1, 2020.
The final report for the 2021-26 period is due to be submitted by October 30, 2020.
The Centre, in its terms of reference for the current Finance Commission, included a provision on reduction in states’ share of 42% in total taxes due to the creation of the newly formed Union territories of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh. The creation of these new UTs naturally meant the overall share of states had to come down.
In its first report for 2020-21 period, the 15th Finance Commission accordingly reduced states’ share by 1%, i.e. from 42% to 41%. But the larger issue has been unresolved. There have been four meetings with state finance ministers on the issue, the person quoted in the first instance said.
“A majority of states have told the Finance Commission that they want their share increased to 50%,” Isaac said.
West Bengal finance minister Amit Mitra has been attacking the Centre over what he alleged was an attempt to “control” the terms of reference of the finance commission. On August 1, he accused the Centre of attempting to directly “intervene”.
“The Centre will keep nudging the finance commissions, states will also want more, but the Finance Commission will have to make an objective, fair assessment, and take its own call. If it toes the Centre’s line, then the institution will lose its sanctity,” said M Govinda Rao, a noted economist who was a member of 14th Finance Commission.
According to Rao, the ruling parties at the Centre, over the years, have tended to roll out more central schemes falling in states’ domain to gain political advantage. “The Centre’s spending on programmes in states’ subjects has increased from 13% to 17% in recent years, while that on concurrent subjects has increased from 15% to 19%. This allows the Centre to take ownership of welfare schemes. But it also burdens its finances,” Rao explained.
The 15th Finance Commission has also been mandated to additionally review the impact of the 14th Finance Commission recommendations (which increased states’ share to 42%) on the fiscal position of the Centre.
The last budget estimated the total share of states in taxes at ₹7.84 lakh crore for 2020-21. An individual state’s share is determined by a predetermined formula. Various factors go into the criteria where weights are assigned, including for population, income distance, forest cover and area. Income distance is defined as the difference between the per capita income of a state and the average per capita incomes of all states. States with lower incomes may get a higher share. For instance, according to the 14th Finance Commission’s award, Bihar, a poorer state, had a 9.7% share in taxes, while Haryana, a richer state, had 1.1%. “The Finance Commission is currently looking into the funding patterns of centrally sponsored schemes as a possible solution,” the person quoted in the first instance said.
The Centre bears the major chunk of expenditure in centrally sponsored schemes, such as the National Health Mission (NHM), Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) and Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). The Centre-state ratio of funding is 60:40, and for northeastern and hilly states, it is 90:10.
According to Rao, one of the mandates of the current Finance Commission is to make sectoral grants to states based on measurable performances on various parameters. “If the sectoral grants are more, then tax devolution will have to come down. Besides, revenue projections are falling due to Covid. So, it will be a difficult call.”
One of the key mandates of the 15th Finance Commission is to look at the full implications of GST and issues related to large shortfall in collections and high volatility in GST revenues.