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Struggling Puerto Rico cracks down on tax cheats

Published:Monday | March 9, 2015 | 12:00 AM


With recession biting into profits at their chain of burger restaurants and surf shops, two brothers responded in a way Puerto Rico authorities say is common: by short-changing the government.

Javier and Oscar Juelle failed to turn over $1.27 million in sales taxes they collected over four years, a move their lawyer Joaquin Monserrate said was meant to help keep them afloat on an island where many businesses have failed in recent years.

"It was a way to try and survive," Monserrate said. "They were and are in a tight economic situation and were using the money to pay for other things."

While the brothers were caught and ordered last year to pay the money owed, many others go unpunished, according to officials who say widespread tax evasion by businesses and individuals is one reason the island is in dire financial straits. Economists say Puerto Rico captures just over half the tax revenue it should, failing to collect on an estimated $800 million in unreported income each year.




A new plan backed by Governor Alejandro Garcia aims to boost revenue and tackle the US territory's spiraling public debt by creating a 16 per cent value-added tax, or VAT. If approved, manufacturers would pay the tax on raw materials and include it in the price of

the product sold to retailers, who then would pass it on to consumers.

Having the tax levied and recorded at each stage would make it harder for businesses to evade taxes. It also would replace the island's current seven per cent sales tax, approved in 2006, that many people avoid through cash transactions.

"We currently have a tax system that penalises work and productivity while encouraging evasion," Garcia said. "It is inefficient and unfair."

Advocates say the VAT would boost revenue collection as Puerto Rico struggles to pay off a $73-billion public debt, which leads to higher interest rates and makes it hard for the government to borrow money. Garcia, who faces re-election next year, is likely to win support from the legislature, where his party holds the majority, despite strong public opposition. The proposal currently is being debated, although some lawmakers including the president of the local House of Representatives, are demanding changes.