The recent obsession with cutting federal spending has marred the economic recovery and undermined services for the neediest in American society. But it’s great news for at least one group: tax cheats.
Over 1,000 Dallas-area people who are delinquent on their federal taxes can rest easy with Tax Day looming because budget cuts have left the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) office in the area with too few resources to pursue cases against people who owe the government more than $100,000 but less than a million dollars. The tax cheats may still get liens filed against their property but they won’t get the in-person enforcement actions that are crucial to actually collecting back taxes, the Washington Post reports.
Wage garnishment is normally the IRS’ most effective tool for securing repayment, but that tactic is useless against most of the people who are skating away with government money at this point. Most of them are wealthy enough not to work a steady job, so there are no checks to garnish. Collections in such cases rely on face-to-face meetings where agents can establish a payment plan. There is no money for such time-consuming door-knock efforts in the Dallas-based IRS office that oversees northern Texas, southern Oklahoma, and some pieces of Kansas, regional supervisor Richard Christian told the Post.
“If you owe $1 million, I’m going to knock on your door,” he told the paper. “If you just owe $700,000, we’ll hope you get a job sometime so we can levy.”
It’s unclear if Christian’s response to resource trouble is part of an agency-wide directive, or just the management decision of one supervisor in one region. But since funding for all the agency’s functions have been undermined for years, and the enforcement offices have been a particular target lately, Christian’s counterparts around the country are certainly facing similar kinds of tough choices.
Budget cuts have curtailed the agency’s ability to collect properly on behalf of the public in a range of ways. IRS helplines for filers struggling with their taxes are perennially overloaded, but cuts are compounding that annual headache. Multiple rounds of cuts dating back to 2013’s “sequestration” deal have undermined the agency’s ability to audit returns, making it more likely that both innocent errors and intentional tax cheating will go unnoticed. The IRS furloughed almost 90,000 workers in response to sequestration cuts. Even when those steep cuts were partially reversed with a budget deal at the beginning of 2014, the IRS enforcement branch had its budget cut by more than $300 million from the previous year. When the so-called “cromnibus” deal to prevent a government shutdown passed in December, Republicans won another $135 million cut to enforcement budgets. The $444 million two-year cut amounts to one eleventh of the 2013 enforcement budget.
Losing nearly half a billion dollars in budget authority would cripple the effectiveness of any organization. But the IRS was already bleeding staff at an alarming rate. Its workforce is aging rapidly — half are older than 50 and 40 percent will be eligible to retire in 2019 — and it’s been unable to effectively recruit new, young blood. The agency has shrunk by 16.7 percent since 2011, losing 18,138 employees overall. In Texas, Kansas, and Oklahoma, there are 1,528 fewer IRS workers than in 2011, a 13.1 percent drop across those three states.
Eliminating a sixth of the people in charge of collecting your money is very expensive on the whole. Every dollar spent on IRS enforcement nets between $4 and $5 in additional revenue. “The cumulative effect of the cuts in enforcement personnel since Fiscal 2010 is an estimated $7–8 billion a year in lost revenue for the government,” IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said Wednesday at a Tax Policy Center event. For comparison, that’s enough to almost exactly cover the cost of making pre-school free for every kid in America.
Republicans have justified their bizarre targeting of one of the government’s most efficient forms of spending by latching onto the trumped-up claim that the agency’s enforcement division had gone on a partisan goose-hunt to curb the efficacy of Tea Party-oriented non-profit organizations. In the context of that story, the cuts might look like a valuable wing-clipping of an out-of-control bureaucracy that was corrupting American elections and overstepping its bounds. But the supposed scandal was hot air. After the media had moved on, documents emerged showing that the over-aggression in the non-profit division had been non-partisan, with agents scrutinizing “occupy” and “progress” as well as “tea party.”