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TurboTax Maker Linked To ‘Grassroots’ Campaign Against Free, Simple Tax Filing

by Liz Day, ProPublica.

Over the last year, a rabbi, a state NAACP official, a smalltown mayor and other community leaders wrote op-eds and letters to Congress with remarkably similar language on a remarkably obscure topic.

Each railed against a long-standing proposal that would give taxpayers the option to use pre-filled tax returns. They warned that the program would be a conflict of interest for the IRS and would especially hurt low-income people, who wouldn’t have the resources to fight inaccurate returns. Rabbi Elliot Dorff wrote in a Jewish Journal op-ed that he “shudder[s] at the impact this program will have on the most vulnerable people in American society.”

“It’s alarming and offensive” that the IRS would target the “the most vulnerable Americans,” two other letters said. The concept, known as return-free filing, is a government “experiment” that would mean higher taxes for the poor, two op-eds argued.

The letters and op-eds don’t mention that, as ProPublica laid out last year, return-free filing might allow tens of millions of Americans to file their taxes for free and in minutes. Or that, under proposals authored by several federal lawmakers, it would be voluntary, using information the government already receives from banks and employers and that taxpayers could adjust. Or that the concept has been endorsed by Presidents Obama and Reagan and is already a reality in some parts of Europe.

So, where did the letters and op-eds come from? Here’s one clue:

Rabbi Dorff says he was approached by a former student, Emily Pflaster, who sent him details and asked him to write an op-ed alerting the Jewish community to the threat.

What Pflaster did not tell him is that she works for a PR and lobbying firm with connections to Intuit, the maker of best-selling tax software TurboTax.

“I wish she would have told me that,” Dorff told ProPublica.

The website of Pflaster’s firm, JCI Worldwide, had listed Intuit among its clients, but removed it after ProPublica contacted them. Pflaster said Intuit had been listed by mistake, but added that the firm does work for the Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA), a trade group of which Intuit is a member. Pflaster also said her firm has reached out to multiple groups and encouraged them to share information about the “flaws” of return-free filing.

The only CCIA member that’s involved with tax preparation software is Intuit, and it’s also the only member of the group that has taken a public position on return-free tax filing.

Intuit has long worked against return-free filing. (See How the Maker of TurboTax Fought Free, Simple Tax Filing.) The company has said in filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission that it views free government tax preparation as a risk to its business.

Last year, the company spent more than $2.6 million on lobbying, some of it to lobby on four bills related to the issue, federal lobbying records show.

Both Intuit and CCIA declined to answer questions about their connections to the letters and op-eds. An Intuit spokeswoman, Julie Miller, said in an emailed statement that Intuit works with many types of groups to support “taxpayer empowerment,” and “We feel all points of view deserve to be heard.”

“ReturnFree minimizes the taxpayers’ voice and instead maximizes revenue collection for government,” Miller wrote. “That kind of anti-consumer policy does not advance taxpayer rights.”

CCIA president Ed Black said in a statement, “We think it’s important to help policymakers and the public understand what many already know: ReturnFree is unfair, unworkable and unwise.”

The letters and op-eds — there have been at least eight of them — also appear on a new website, www.FairTaxRefunds.com, which Pflaster said her company created for CCIA. It resembles a similar previous site, www.StopIRSTakeover.org, which was also sponsored by the CCIA.

Another instance in which CCIA solicited a letter wasn’t successful. Angela Martin, director of an Oregon nonprofit, said a PR professional gave her a sample anti-return-free filing letter last year for her organization to send to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR).

Martin knew the caller, Colin Cochran, who works for the firm Hilltop Public Solutions.

Cochran used “a lot of words that advocates would be sympathetic to, like ‘oh, it’ll hurt people with English as a second language,'” Martin said.

Martin was skeptical. So she asked Cochran who he was representing. He said he was working for the CCIA and, when asked, said yes, that Intuit is a member.

Cochran confirmed the details of his discussion with Martin, including that he was working for the CCIA. His firm boasts on its website of a “winning grasstops approach” — “grasstops” is industry lingo for recruiting the support of community leaders.

Two other letter writers told ProPublica they were approached by lobbyists, though it’s not clear who the lobbyists were representing.

One letter writer, Richard Smith, the president of the NAACP Delaware State Conference, was approached by a longtime acquaintance with information about how return-free filing would take dollars out of poor people’s pockets. Smith felt so strongly he fired off a letter to Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE), and encouraged other local NAACP leaders to do the same.

Smith said the acquaintance, Anne Farley, told him that if return-free filing was adopted, the government would stop offering free tax filing help to low-income communities. (In fact, none of the bills on return-free filing propose that.)

When ProPublica told Smith that Farley is also a registered lobbyist, he said he was now questioning the information she gave him.

“We may have to retract so far based on my research,” Smith said. “I didn’t question her.”

Lobbying records for Farley’s firm, First State Strategies, do not list Intuit or the CCIA among its clients. The firm’s website does advertise “grass tops advocacy campaigns.” Farley and First State Strategies did not respond to requests for comment.

Dennis Huang, executive director of the L.A.-based Asian Business Association, also told ProPublica he was solicited by a lobbyist to write about return-free filing. When the lobbyist sent him a suggested op-ed last summer and told him the proposal would hurt small businesses, Huang wrote an op-ed in the Asian Journal that claimed Asian-owned businesses would not only spend more time paying taxes, but they’d also get less of a refund each year.

Huang declined to disclose the lobbyist’s name, but acknowledged he didn’t really do his own research. “There’s some homework needed,” he said.

Oregon’s Martin did some research on return-free filing and now supports it. She also co-published a post about the issue and the PR efforts related to it because, she says, she was alarmed that other nonprofits could easily agree to endorse a position they did not fully understand.

“You get one or two prominent nonprofits to use their name, and busy advocates will extend trust and say sure, us too,” Martin said.

Photo: absoblogginlutely via Flickr

 

How The Maker Of TurboTax Fought Free, Simple Tax Filing — And Won

by Liz Day, Pro Publica.

This story was co-produced with NPR.

Imagine filing your income taxes in five minutes — and for free. You’d open up a pre-filled return, see what the government thinks you owe, make any needed changes and be done. The miserable annual IRS shuffle, gone.

It’s already a reality in Denmark, Sweden and Spain. The government-prepared return would estimate your taxes using information your employer and bank already send it. Advocates say tens of millions of taxpayers could use such a system each year, saving them a collective $2 billion and 225 million hours in prep costs and time, according to one estimate.

The idea, known as “return-free filing,” would be a voluntary alternative to hiring a tax preparer or using commercial tax software. The concept has been around for decades and has been endorsed by both President Ronald Reagan and a campaigning President Obama.

“This is not some pie-in-the-sky that’s never been done before,” said William Gale, co-director of the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center. “It’s doable, feasible, implementable, and at a relatively low cost.”

So why hasn’t it become a reality?

Well, for one thing, it doesn’t help that it’s been opposed for years by the company behind the most popular consumer tax software — Intuit, maker of TurboTax. Conservative tax activist Grover Norquist and an influential computer industry group also have fought return-free filing.

Intuit has spent about $11.5 million on federal lobbying in the past five years — more than Apple or Amazon. Although the lobbying spans a range of issues, Intuit’s disclosures pointedly note that the company “opposes IRS government tax preparation.”

The disclosures show that Intuit as recently as 2011 lobbied on two bills, both of which died, that would have allowed many taxpayers to file pre-filled returns for free. The company also lobbied on bills in 2007 and 2011 that would have barred the Treasury Department, which includes the IRS, from initiating return-free filing.

Intuit argues that allowing the IRS to act as a tax preparer could result in taxpayers paying more money. It is also a member of the Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA), which sponsors a “STOP IRS TAKEOVER” campaign and a website calling return-free filing a “massive expansion of the U.S. government through a big government program.”

In an emailed statement, Intuit spokeswoman Julie Miller said, “Like many other companies, Intuit actively participates in the political process.” Return-free programs curtail citizen participation in the tax process, she said, and also have “implications for accuracy and fairness in taxation.” (Here is Intuit’s full statement.)

In its latest annual report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, however, Intuit also says that free government tax preparation presents a risk to its business.

Roughly 25 million Americans used TurboTax last year, and a recent GAO analysis said the software accounted for more than half of individual returns filed electronically. TurboTax products and services made up 35 percent of Intuit’s $4.2 billion in total revenues last year. Versions of TurboTax for individuals and small businesses range in price from free to $150.

(H&R Block, whose tax filing product H&R Block At Home competes with TurboTax, declined to discuss return-free filing with ProPublica. The company’s disclosure forms state that it also has lobbied on at least one bill related to return-free filing.)

* * *

Proponents of return-free filing say Intuit and other critics are exaggerating the risks of government involvement. No one would be forced to accept the IRS accounting of their taxes, they say, so there’s little to fear.

“It’s voluntary,” Austan Goolsbee, who served as the chief economist for the President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board, told ProPublica. “If you don’t trust the government, you don’t have to do it.”

Goolsbee has written in favor of the idea and published the estimate of $2 billion in saved preparation costs in a 2006 paper that also said return-free “could significantly reduce the time lag in resolving disputes and accelerate the time to receive a refund.”

Other advocates point out that the IRS would be doing essentially the same work it does now. The agency would simply share its tax calculation before a taxpayer files rather than afterward when it checks a return.

“When you make an appointment for a car to get serviced, the service history is all there. Since the IRS already has all that info anyway, it’s not a big challenge to put it in a format where we could see it,” said Paul Caron, a tax professor at University of Cincinnati College of Law. “For a big slice of the population, that’s 100 percent of what’s on their tax return.”

Taxpayers would have three options when they receive a pre-filled return: accept it as is; make adjustments, say to filing status or income; or reject it and file a return by other means.

“I’ve been shocked as a tax person and citizen that this hasn’t happened by now,” Caron said.

Some conservative activists have sided with Intuit.

In 2005, Norquist testified before the President’s Advisory Panel on Federal Tax Reform arguing against return-free filing. The next year, Norquist and others wrote in a letter to President Bush that getting an official-looking “bill” from the IRS could be “extremely intimidating, particularly for seniors, low-income and non-English speaking citizens.”

Norquist, founder of Americans for Tax Reform, declined to comment, but a spokesman pointed to a letter he and other conservatives sent this month to members of Congress. The letter says the IRS wants to “socialize all tax preparation in America” to get higher tax revenues.

A year after Norquist wrote Bush, a bill to limit return-free filing was introduced by a pair of unlikely allies: Reps. Eric Cantor (R-VA), the conservative House Majority Leader, and Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), a liberal stalwart whose district includes Silicon Valley.

Intuit’s political committee and employees have contributed to both. Cantor and his leadership PAC have received $26,100 in the past five years from the company’s PAC and employees. In the last two years, the Intuit PAC and employees donated $26,000 to Lofgren.

A spokeswoman said in an email that Cantor “doesn’t believe the IRS should be in the business of filling out your tax returns for you,” and that the bill was designed to “prevent the IRS from circumventing Congress.”

Lofgren did not respond to requests for comment.

* * *

Intuit did not issue public statements on the return-free filing bills, but CCIA President Ed Black has called return-free filing “brilliantly Machiavellian.” When Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR), and Dan Coats (R-IN), introduced a bipartisan tax reform bill in 2011 that included a return-free plan called “Easyfile,” Norquist blasted it.

“The clear goal of this measure is to raise taxes in a way that leaves politicians with clean hands,” he wrote in a letter to the two senators.

Political opposition hasn’t been the only hurdle. Supporters say return-free filing has been overshadowed in a tax debate that has focused more on rates, deductions and deficits.

Further, return-free filing would not be available to everyone. It’s best for the slice of taxpayers with straightforward returns who don’t itemize or claim various credits.

Still, past studies estimate that this group might include 40 percent of filers or more; the IRS expects to process 147 million individual returns this year.

In separate reports, the CCIA and a think tank that Intuit helps sponsor argue that potential costs outweigh return-free filing’s benefits. Among other things, the reports say that not many taxpayers are likely to use return-free, that new data reporting requirements could raise costs for employers, and that taxpayers could face new privacy and security risks.

The reports and Intuit also note that many taxpayers can already get free tax filing through the Free File Alliance, a consortium involving the IRS and a handful of companies. But last tax year, only about three million filers had used Free File, according to a Treasury tally through April 28.

In an SEC filing, Intuit said it provided about 1.2 million free federal returns for the 2011 tax season. The company and competitors typically advertise free federal filing on the Web but also pitch other paid services, such as filing certain state returns.

Government studies have split about whether a return-free system would save or cost the IRS money, according to a 2003 Treasury report. Unless the tax code was simplified, the report said, it would add work for employers and the IRS, which would have to process tax records sooner.

Some independent tax experts see potential problems with a return-free system.

Eric Toder, co-director of the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, said the IRS, “an overpressed agency that’s being asked to do a lot of things,” shouldn’t be asked to do what software companies could easily do.

James Maule, a professor at Villanova University School of Law, said the average taxpayer probably wouldn’t scrutinize a pre-filled return for accuracy or potential credits. “Some people might get this thing that says this is your tax bill and just pay it, like with property tax bills,” said Maule.

* * *

So far, the only true test case for return-free filing in the U.S. has been in Intuit’s home state.

In 2005, California launched a pilot program called ReadyReturn. As it fought against the program over the next five years, Intuit spent more than $3 million on overall lobbying and political campaigns in the state, according to Dennis J. Ventry Jr., a professor at UC Davis School of Law, who specializes in tax policy and legal ethics.

Explaining the company’s stance, Intuit spokeswoman Miller told The Los Angeles Times in 2006 that it was “a fundamental conflict of interest for the state’s tax collector and enforcer to also become people’s tax preparer.”

The following month, an ad in The Sacramento Bee, paid for by the CCIA, cautioned “Taxpayers beware,” and said ReadyReturn “could be very harmful to taxpayers.” The ad pointed to a now-defunct website, taxthreat.com, opposing ReadyReturn.

Former California Republican legislator Tom Campbell recalls being surprised at the opposition.

“The government imposed the income tax burden in the first place,” he told ProPublica. “So if it wants to make it easier, for heaven’s sake, why not?”

In a Los Angeles Times op-ed at the time, Campbell wrote he “never saw as clear a case of lobbying power putting private interests first over public benefit.”

Joseph Bankman, a Stanford Law School professor who helped design ReadyReturn, says he spent close to $30,000 of his own money to hire a lobbyist to defend the program in the legislature. Intuit made political contributions to scores of legislative candidates, Bankman said, and gave $1 million in 2006 to a group backing a ReadyReturn opponent for state controller.

ReadyReturn survived, but with essentially no marketing budget it is not widely known. Fewer than 90,000 California taxpayers used it last year – although those who do use it seem to be happy. Ninety-eight percent of users who filled out a survey said they would use it again. The state’s tax agency has also praised ReadyReturns, saying they are cheaper to process than paper returns.

Bankman thinks national return-free filing could make many others happy, too. “We’d have tens of millions of taxpayers,” he said, “who no longer find April 15 a day of frustration and anxiety.”

Photo: Images_of_Money via Flickr.com