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The Theory of Fiscal Federalism

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The theory of fiscal federalism addresses three issues related to fiscal decision-making: assignment of responsibilities and functions between the federal government and the regional governments, the assignment of the taxing power and the design of intergovernmental transfer (subsidy) of fiscal resources coupled with provisions about the borrowing windows to sub-national governments. These factors give rise to a third issue of the relative size of the public sector in the national economy. It is therefore the dynamics of these processes and public policy choices that ultimately shapes the performance of the fiscal sector and its impact on the national economy. An important aspect of the exercise of fiscal federalism is the assignment of fiscal functions to the federal and the sub-national governments and the appropriate means of financing these responsibilities. The theory of fiscal federalism does not provide a clear-cut separation of fiscal responsibilities that would promote economic efficiency and resource distribution.

The broad thrust of normative theory is that expenditure responsibilities in areas of macroeconomic stabilization and redistribution functions should remain within the domain of the federal government whereas allocation functions should be assigned to lower levels of government. The argument is based on the reasoning that lower levels of government have limited capacity and policy instruments to provide stabilization and redistribution functions. Due to the nature of the responsibilities, the federal government usually assumes macroeconomic stabilization and income redistribution functions and make sure that regional governments would not take measures that are not compatible with such functions. Moreover, there are functions such as national defense and foreign affairs that have national public good character and hence usually assigned to the central government.

Fiscal decentralization and the assignment of functions can generate economic efficiency of the public sector. If preferences are heterogeneous across jurisdictions, which is most likely the case, decentralized decision-making power as to the provision of local public goods and services improves efficiency by tailoring services to the preferences of the local population. The main argument is that local governments are closer to the local population and can identify their choice and preferences better than the central government. Accordingly, when the decision to provide a bundle of public goods is made by local officials and these officials are directly accountable to the local voters, there is an incentive for the local public officials to provide services that reflect the preferences of the local population. Moreover, as long as there is close relation between the benefits from public services and taxes on the local taxpayers, there is additional incentive to utilize resources efficiently and cost effectively. At least by implication, the theory recognizes the need for local authorities to exercise choice in the provision of public services that are of higher local demand instead of resorting to the unitary solution.

The decentralization theorem suggests that, under such conditions, decentralization of fiscal decision-making can improve efficiency of the public sector and the welfare of the local population. What kind of taxes should be assigned to the federal government and which should be assigned to the local governments? The theory and practice in the assignment of taxation power identifies the following main criteria in assignment process: taxes on mobile tax bases, redistributive taxes, taxes that could easily be exported to other jurisdictions, taxes on unevenly distributed tax bases, taxes that have large cyclical fluctuations, and taxes that involve considerable economies of scale in tax administration should be assigned to the national or federal government.

There are efficiency and equity considerations behind such principle of tax assignment. The assignment of taxing power between the federal and the regional governments and the provision for concurrent power to share establishes the basic link in which the behavior of one of the parties would influence the decision making power of the other and its effective tax base. There is a possibility for vertical tax externality that might require additional policy instruments to correct their effect on other levels of government. When there are clear cases in which vertical tax externalities are prevalent, the tension between the federal and the state governments would arise. This in turn would require mechanisms for the assignment of taxing power and revenue based on the nature and characteristics of the tax base. The assignment of taxing power is a thorny issue in fiscal policy and its application is influenced by a number of considerations.

First, despite the legislative assignment of taxes, the actual potency of the tax network depends on the nature and development of the national economy, the relative distribution of economic activities across jurisdictions, and the administrative efficiency of the taxation system.

Second, the practice of fiscal federalism, especially when citizens across regions with diverse economic and demographic situations are treated unequally, gives rise to the violation of one of the core principles of horizontal fiscal equity. Moreover, fiscal decentralization might also potentially breach the principle of vertical fiscal equity by not treating taxpayers with different capacity to pay differently.

Third, despite the monopoly of taxing power resides at the disposal of the government, the reach of the taxation network depends on the economic circumstances of the potential taxpayers. The fiscal system of Ethiopia has historically been characterized by high centralization and concentration of fiscal decision-making power at the center.

Moreover, the structure of the fiscal system shares important features with other underdeveloped economies in terms of reliance on indirect taxes, dependency on international trade taxes, and persistent fiscal deficits. The current fiscal system of Ethiopia features some departures from the previous systems and striking continuities in the structure and essential elements of fiscal performance of the economy. The main features of fiscal aggregates of Ethiopia suggest that either the government is not willing to fundamentally change its fiscal policy stance or the fiscal system is governed by the structural features of the economy that are not easily amenable to change in response to fiscal policy reforms. A closer examination of the main features of the fiscal system suggests that both factors play a role in the process. The nature and structure of the economy, the resulting tax bases, the excessive dependence on international trade taxes and external grants, and persistent deficits all contribute to the prevailing features of the fiscal sector as do the fiscal policy stance of the government.

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