Taxpayer Rights and Declining Budgets

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Today marks the opening of the Second International Taxpayer Rights Conference. It is hosted by the Institute for Austrian and International Tax Law at WU (Vienna University of Economics and Business) in Vienna, Austria.

This conference connects government officials, scholars, and practitioners from around the world to explore how taxpayer rights globally serve as the foundation for effective tax administration.

For two days, the conference will consider a range of issues, including:

  • Taxpayer Rights in Multi-Jurisdictional Disputes
  • Privacy and Transparency in Tax Administration
  • Access to Taxpayer Rights: The Right to Quality Service in Today’s Environment
  • Transforming Cultures of Agencies and Taxpayers
  • Impact of Penalty Administration on Taxpayer Trust

There are some very interesting panelists and over 160 attendees representing 40 different countries.  Facebook live sessions of the conference can be found at www.facebook.com/TaxAnalysts.org/videos

I am appearing on a panel discussing taxpayer rights in era of reduced agency budgets. My talk is entitled Thoughts on Taxpayer Rights and an Uncertain Future, and an upcoming paper based on it will be published as part of the conference proceedings. A significant number of the panelists’ talks will result in published papers.

Part of my talk addresses how an agency can best juggle its multiple roles when faced with declining resources. This is an issue the IRS knows well. To be sure, there have been trends like e-filing that allow for a more efficient and lean tax agency, and many developed countries are squeezing efficiency gains out of tax administrators. Yet budget pressures on the IRS have been constant over the last five years, and it looks like more major cuts are coming. For example, the NY Times reported last week that a Trump budget would include a 14% funding cut for the IRS.

The issue of declining resources and a drop in IRS service is a good way to link last week’s hearings sponsored by the House Oversight Committee’s subcommittees on Government Operations and Health Care, Benefits and Administrative Rules that focused on the IRS “failure to efficiently direct available resources to customer service and what might be done to improve it.”

The hearings included an IRS executive discussing IRS performance in the last year or so, with a generally optimistic discussion of improvements (due in part to the FY 16 the first increase in six years to IRS funding) over the dreadful 2015 filing season when some measures of service like answering phone calls and responding to correspondence were weak by most every measure. Last week’s TIGTA testimony is a more measured assessment of IRS performance and lays out some of the specific 2017 filing season challenges and difficulties IRS has in staffing taxpayer assistance centers and performing

The GAO in its written testimony found an uptick in IRS’s service last filing season as compared to 2015, though still found considerable room for improvement:

In summary, we found that IRS provided better telephone service to callers during the 2016 filing season—generally between January and mid-April—compared to 2015. However, its performance during the full fiscal year remained low. Furthermore, IRS does not make this nor other types of customer service information easily available to taxpayers, such as in an online dashboard. Without easily accessible information, taxpayers are not well informed of what to expect when requesting services from IRS. We also found that IRS has improved aspects of service for victims of IDT refund fraud However, inefficiencies contribute to delays, and potentially weak internal controls may lead to the release of fraudulent refunds. In turn, this limits IRS’s ability to serve taxpayers and protect federal dollars.

The mainstream media has picked up on some of the implications of continued IRS budget cuts; see, e.g. Catherine Rampell at the Washington Post Trump’s gift to Americans: Making it easier to cheat on their taxes. Deep cuts in IRS budgets as may be on the horizon are likely to create continued complaints both about declining direct measures of compliance and on measures of IRS service like answering the phone and making employees available to meet in person with taxpayers. Budget cuts and drops in service tend to hit hardest on those with fewer resources. In addition, while IRS has now adopted a formal set of taxpayer rights, to ensure protection of those rights it often takes a committed agency both willing to identify problems its taxpayers experience and to ensure its procedures and practices respect and promote those rights. Whether IRS will be able to balance its many responsibilities while respecting the taxpayer rights it agrees to protect is something that is on uncertain ground in this uncertain time.

 

 

 

Leslie Book About Leslie Book

Professor Book is a Professor of Law at the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law.

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