New York Times, Would You Let the I.R.S. Prepare Your Taxes?:
Around this time every year, Joseph Bankman, a professor of tax law at Stanford Law School and a longtime advocate of using technology to simplify tax filing, gets on the phone with reporters to explain what is wrong with how we do our taxes in the United States. Every year he says pretty much the same thing: No other industrialized country asks its citizens to jump through as many hoops to calculate their taxes as ours.
It isn’t just lawmakers or the hapless-seeming Internal Revenue Service that is perpetuating the annoyance of tax time, he adds. Instead it is the private sector — specifically, the software company Intuit, which makes TurboTax, the most popular tax program in the country.
For more than a decade, Mr. Bankman and a small group of tax experts have called on the government to create a tax preparation method that they say would vastly reduce the time and cost of tax-filing for most people. Intuit has been a primary obstacle to the effort.
The reform plan would work like this: Today, employers, banks, brokerage firms and pretty much every other financial organization in the country send the federal government detailed records about our economic activity every year. These organizations also send you, the taxpayer, a similar set of documents, which are forms with names like W2 and 1098. After you file your taxes, the government matches its two sets of documents to make sure you have filed correctly.
To Mr. Bankman, this double documentation doesn’t make much sense. If the government is already collecting financial data from employers and banks, why can’t the I.R.S. use that information to precalculate our tax returns for us? At the very least, why can’t tax software just connect to the government’s database to download all the information that the government has collected, saving us all that record-keeping and data entry?
“Imagine if your vehicle registration fee was done the same way,” Mr. Bankman asked in a recent interview. “Imagine if the state said, ‘Go to your car, find your VIN number and then look at this table that has different tax rates to find out how much you owe.’ If they did, people would probably need to hire an expert for that too.”
The idea of the government filling our tax returns for us, known as “return-free filing,” has been met with much opposition from several groups, including conservatives suspicious of the I.R.S. And as the investigative news organization ProPublica reported in 2013 and 2014, some of the most intense opposition has come from Intuit, which has spent millions lobbying to oppose methods for the I.R.S. to create a tax-filing system that might free us from having to use software like TurboTax. ...
Dennis Ventry, a professor at the School of Law at the University of California, Davis who has studied the issue, said that while Free File and Intuit’s integrations with private companies were beneficial, they won’t be nearly as helpful as a government program to reform tax filing.
Mr. Ventry said that if return-free filing were operated nationally, tens of millions of people with simple tax situations might have to do just a few minutes of work at tax time every year. The I.R.S. would send them a tax return that had already been filled in with their financial data, and if everything looked in order, they would file it either through the mail or electronically. The return would be completely voluntary. People who disputed the I.R.S.’s calculation would be able to do their taxes the old-fashioned way. Tens of millions of additional taxpayers with more complex returns would be able to save time by downloading all the financial information that the government has collected about them during the year. You would be able to do your return without hunting for every stray W2 or 1099 in your household. “It can help all 145 million taxpayers,” Mr. Ventry said.
But Intuit’s opposition to return-free filing has been ferocious. In the last five years, according to disclosure documents, Intuit spent nearly $13 million on federal lobbying. That is about the same amount that companies many times its size have spent on lobbying. Apple, which has an annual income about 40 times that of Intuit, also spent about $13 million on lobbying in the same period. While documents show that Intuit lobbies on several issues, including immigration, cybersecurity and intellectual property law, the company’s largest lobbying contracts all involve the issue of tax administration.
More than a decade ago, Mr. Bankman helped create a California program known as ReadyReturn that precalculates some residents’ state tax returns. It received little marketing and fewer than 100,000 people used it at its peak — yet every year in surveys run by California’s Franchise Tax Board, more than 95 percent of those who had used ReadyReturn said they would use it again. Mr. Bankman said that people who used the system saved about $30 a year in costs and about 30 minutes in time. Seeing the success of the program, tax authorities in other states began contacting Mr. Bankman for help in setting up a similar plan.
Then Intuit mobilized against ReadyReturn, hiring lobbyists to oppose the effort in the capital and financing candidates who pledged to overturn it. In 2006, using an independent expenditure group known as the Alliance for California’s Tomorrow, Intuit sank $1 million into the race for California state comptroller in support of Tony Strickland, a Republican who opposed ReadyReturn. Mr. Strickland lost to John Chiang, a Democrat, but Intuit’s money was nevertheless effective.
“It was a huge signal to politicians everywhere how much Intuit cares about this,” Mr. Bankman said. “People in other states who had been interested in it started saying, ‘We just don’t want to pick a fight with Intuit.’