Yves here. Grrr, I had this IRS post 100% ready to go in the morning and didn’t launch it.
Sing after me: “Because H&R Block!” Well, actually, it’s not just H&R Block that keeps the IRS hostage. From ProPublica in Inside TurboTax’s 20-Year Fight to Stop Americans From Filing Their Taxes for Free:
Intuit’s QuickBooks accounting product remains a steady moneymaker, but in the past two decades TurboTax, its tax preparation product, has driven the company’s steadily growing profits and made it a Wall Street phenom….
But the success of TurboTax rests on a shaky foundation, one that could collapse overnight if the U.S. government did what most wealthy countries did long ago and made tax filing simple and free for most citizens.
For more than 20 years, Intuit has waged a sophisticated, sometimes covert war to prevent the government from doing just that, according to internal company and IRS documents and interviews with insiders. The company unleashed a battalion of lobbyists and hired top officials from the agency that regulates it. From the beginning, Intuit recognized that its success depended on two parallel missions: stoking innovation in Silicon Valley while stifling it in Washington. Indeed, employees ruefully joke that the company’s motto should actually be “compromise without integrity.”
Internal presentations lay out company tactics for fighting “encroachment,” Intuit’s catchall term for any government initiative to make filing taxes easier — such as creating a free government filing system or pre-filling people’s returns with payroll or other data the IRS already has.
Although The Verge in 2020 said maybe there is hope, thanks to that another ProPublica story:
Earlier this year, ProPublicapublished a report showing how Intuit, the company behind TurboTax, was misleading users into paying to file their taxes — something that’s supposed to be free in the first place for many. They, along with H&R Block, went so far as to keep the free versions from showing up in search engine results. This made it harder for users to find the free versions online, and many people ended up paying to file their taxes when they really didn’t have to. Now, ProPublicareports that the IRS is taking steps against this.
On Monday, the IRS released an addendum to its Free File program — the agreement with tax preparation companies intended to keep tax filing free — that now prohibits these companies from hiding the pages that allow you to file for free from Google and other search engines. They’ve also eliminated a restriction against the IRS making its own filing software.
In several other countries, filing your taxes is a lot easier. The government uses data it already has on your income to fill out your taxes. But in the United States, Intuit has spent millions each year lobbying against these simpler systems which would eliminate the need for their services. Tax industry lobbying was how the IRS’s Free File was initially created, with the IRS agreeing to leave it up to those companies.
The Free File program initially said that filing software had to allow lower- and middle-income taxpayers to be able to file for free. In return, the IRS agreed to not make its own free filing software, something that the tax preparation companies thought could be a big competitor to their business. The new addendum also requires all these tax preparation companies to give their truly free options a specific badge: “IRS Free File program delivered by [Member company name or product name],” so you can tell them apart from other versions which might sneakily require you to pay.
When ProPublicapublished their groundbreaking report in April, they found that TurboTax’s main page didn’t even link to the page that lets you file for free. You couldn’t access the free version from TurboTax.com at all. Some of the links in the free version of TurboTax would link to the paid version, tricking you into paying more than you should. And TurboTax had also deliberately targeted students and low-income users with the paid version of their service, moving necessary forms like student loan interest deduction into the “Deluxe” tier.
I hope some of you manage to get your IRS duties completed easily and inexpensively. We small business owners, even with simple operations, wind up eating a lot of costs. And I have to confess that the complexity of tax filings has made me a bit phobic about filling out any official document.
By Beverly Moran, Professor Emerita of Law, Vanderbilt University. Originally published at The Conversation
The Internal Revenue Service has postponed the April 15 tax filing deadline to May 17. If taxpayers need even more time to file federal returns, the agency added, they can request an extension until Oct. 15.
“This continues to be a tough time for many people, and the IRS wants to continue to do everything possible to help taxpayers navigate the unusual circumstances related to the pandemic, while also working on important tax administration responsibilities,” said IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig.
The announcement may come as welcome news for many Americans, but it also raises an important question: Why should taxpayers have to navigate the tedious, costly tax filing system at all?
The case for a ‘Simple Return’
In 1985, President Ronald Reagan promised a “return-free” tax system in which half of all Americans would never fill out a tax return again. Under the framework, taxpayers with simple returns would automatically receive a refund or a letter detailing any tax owed. Taxpayers with more complicated returns would use the system in place today.
In 2006, President Barack Obama’s chief economist, Austan Goolsbee, premiered the “simple return,” where taxpayers would receive already completed tax forms for their review or correction. Goolsbee estimated his system would save taxpayers more than US$2 billion a year in tax preparation fees.
Though never implemented, the two proposals illustrate what we all know: No one enjoys filling out tax forms.
So why do we have to?
A Costly and Time-Consuming System
Return-free filing is not difficult.
At least 30 countries permit return-free filing, including Denmark, Sweden, Spain and the United Kingdom.
Furthermore, 95% of American taxpayers receive more than 30 types of information returns that let the government know their exact income. These information returns give the government everything it needs in order to fill out most taxpayers’ returns.
The U.S. system is 10 times more expensive than tax systems in 36 other countries with robust economies. But those costs vanish in a return-free system, as would the 2.6 billion hours Americans spend on tax preparation each year.
Maybe you’re wondering whether Congress is just behind the times, unaware that it can release us from tax preparation? Not true.
As an expert on the U.S. tax system, I see America’s costly and time-consuming tax reporting system as a consequence of its relationship with the commercial tax preparation industry, which lobbies Congress to maintain the status quo.
Commercial Tax Preparation
Almost 20 years ago, Congress directed the IRS to provide low-income taxpayers with free tax preparation. The agency responded in 2002 with “Free File,” a public-private partnership between the government and the tax preparation industry. As part of the deal, the IRS agreed to not compete with the private sector in the free tax preparation market.
In 2007, the House of Representatives rejected legislation to provide free, government tax preparation. And in 2019, Congress tried to legally bar the IRS from ever providing free online tax preparation services.
Only a public outcry turned the tide.
The public part of Free File consists of the IRS herding taxpayers to commercial tax preparation websites. The private part consists of those commercial entities diverting taxpayers toward costly alternatives.
According to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, which oversees IRS activities, private partners use computer code to hide the free websites and take unsuspecting taxpayers to paid sites.
Should a taxpayer discover a free preparation alternative, the private preparers impose various restrictions such as income or the use of various forms as an excuse to kick taxpayers back to paid preparation.
Consequently, of the more than 100 million taxpayers eligible for free help, 35% end up paying for tax preparation and 60% never even visit the free websites. Instead of 70% of Americans receiving free tax preparation, commercial companies whittle that percentage down to 3%.
Tax Savings and Evasion
Perhaps you are guessing that there are valid policy justifications for avoiding government and empowering the private sector. Judge those arguments yourself.
One argument from commercial tax preparers is that taxpayers will miss out on valuable tax savings if they rely on free government preparation.
In fact, the government software would reflect the same laws used by the paid preparers with the same access to tax saving deductions or credits. Further, tax preparers like H & R Block promise to pay all taxes and interest resulting from a failed audit. As a result, these services have every incentive to take conservative, pro-government tax positions.
A second argument is that government-prepared tax returns encourage tax evasion.
In a no-return system, the government reveals its knowledge of the taxpayer’s income before the taxpayer files. Thus, the argument goes, the taxpayer knows if the government has missed something and has reason to let the mistake stand.
But taxpayers already know what information forms the government has because they receive duplicates of those forms. The incentive to lie does not increase because the taxpayer avoids weeks of tax preparation.
Bolstering the Anti-Taxers
Finally, there is the anti-tax argument for onerous tax preparation: Keep tax preparation unpleasant to fuel anti-tax sentiment.
In the past, Republicans argued against high taxes. But after decades of tax cuts, Americans are no longer swayed by that argument.
Exasperating tax preparation, according to this argument, helps keep the anti-tax fever high. And that fuels public hate for government and the tax system.
Unfortunately, the anti-tax contingent’s desire to force Americans to spend time and money on tax preparation dovetails with the tax preparation industry’s desire to collect billions of dollars in fees.
Indeed, Intuit, maker of TurboTax, the tax preparation software, lists government tax preparation as a threat to its business model.
If the government prepared people’s tax returns, that 20% would receive government support. Nonetheless, Intuit has lobbied lawmakers to make the credit more complicated, thereby driving more taxpayers to paid preparation services.
To date, the tax preparation industry has kept the system complicated because the potential cost to it in terms of lost revenue is vast.
Only public outcry can change the system.