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In , we detailed how Intuit has lobbied against allowing the government to estimate your taxes for you. So this week, we called Intuit and asked if they still oppose free, government-prepared returns. The answer: Elizabeth Warren proposed a bill yesterday to allow free government-prepped returns. 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.
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. 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. Although the lobbying spans a range of issues, Intuit's disclosures pointedly note that the company "opposes IRS government tax preparation. The company also lobbied on bills in and 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.
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.
The company's disclosure forms state that it also has lobbied on at least one bill related to return-free filing. No one would be forced to accept the IRS accounting of their taxes, they say, so there's little to fear. The agency would simply share its tax calculation before a taxpayer files rather than afterward when it checks a return.
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.
Some conservative activists have sided with Intuit. 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. The letter says the IRS wants to "socialize all tax preparation in America" to get higher tax revenues.
Norquist's spokesman, John Kartch, disputes that "Norquist declined comment. A year after Norquist wrote Bush, a bill to limit return-free filing was introduced by a pair of unlikely allies: Eric Cantor, R-Va. Intuit's political committee and employees have contributed to both. 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.
Ron Wyden, D-Ore. 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 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 3 million filers had used Free File, according to a Treasury tally through April In an SEC filing , Intuit said it provided about 1. 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 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. In , California launched a pilot program called ReadyReturn.
Ventry Jr. Explaining the company's stance, Intuit spokeswoman Miller told the Los Angeles Times in that it was "a fundamental conflict of interest for the state's tax collector and enforcer to also become people's tax preparer. Former California Republican legislator Tom Campbell recalls being surprised at the opposition. ReadyReturn survived, but with essentially no marketing budget it is not widely known.
Fewer than 90, 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.
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