On March 28, the U.S. Justice Department sought to close a nationwide chain of income tax preparation shops it accuses of fraud. The action underscores the potential for abusive business practices that taxpayers face because Congress has failed to embrace technology that would eliminate most tax returns.
The Justice Department wants a federal judge to shut down Instant Tax Service, whose sole owner is Fesum Ogbazion of Dayton, Ohio, saying he is responsible for “extensive and pervasive tax fraud.” It also sued four of his 276 franchisees. The company has not responded to the lawsuit.
Congress could easily eliminate fraud by abusive tax preparers, as is alleged in the Ogbazion case, and save taxpayers billions of dollars annually, by simply ending mandatory filing of tax returns for most taxpayers.
About 100 million taxpayers — those whose income is entirely from wages and retirement funds, and who do not itemize deductions — should not have to file returns. The government already has the information it needs to calculate the taxes these people owe, once they supply their marital status and number of dependents. It would not take much to automate their income tax payments, as many other modern countries do.
I put the chances of Congress taking such a sensible course at one in 84,000. That’s about the same as the odds of being indicted for a tax crime in 2011, based on an analysis of official data by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.
Congress will not act because individual income tax returns, which for most people are make-work that creates a drag on the economy, provide tidy revenues for Intuit, the maker of TurboTax software, H&R Block and other legitimate corporations that profit from preparing tax returns. These companies have considerable resources at their disposal to spend on lobbying politicians to keep the tax filing requirement. One sign of their determination: Intuit in 2006 donated $1 million in support of an unsuccessful candidate for California state controller who opposed optional state-prepared returns in California. Intuit has said there are serious problems with the program, which remains in operation, but in my view none of Intuit’s criticisms stands up to scrutiny.