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National Taxpayer Advocate Reviews 2015 Tax Season, Identifies Priority Areas and Challenges in Mid-Year Report to Congress

National Taxpayer Advocate (NTA) Nina E. Olson released her mid-year report to Congress, identifying the priority issues the Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS) will address during the upcoming fiscal year. The priorities include the IRS’s long-term strategic planning, tax-related identity theft and administration of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA). The report also presents highlights of the recently concluded 2015 tax filing season.

The report says the IRS ran a generally successful filing season under difficult circumstances. “With funding down about 17 percent on an inflation-adjusted basis since FY 2010, and with the IRS having had to implement large portions of the ACA and the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) this year without any supplemental funding, sharp declines in taxpayer service were inevitable,” Olson wrote. However, the report says: “For the majority of taxpayers who filed their returns and did not require IRS assistance, the filing season was generally successful. For the segment of taxpayers who required help from the IRS, the filing season was by far the worst in memory.”

The report notes the IRS answered only 37 percent of taxpayer calls routed to customer service representatives overall, and the hold time for taxpayers who got through averaged 23 minutes. This level of service represents a sharp drop-off from the 2014 filing season, when the IRS answered 71 percent of its calls and hold times averaged 14 minutes. Moreover, the number of “courtesy disconnects” received by taxpayers calling the IRS skyrocketed from about 544,000 in 2014 to about 8.8 million this filing season, an increase of more than 1,500 percent. The term “courtesy disconnect” is used when the IRS essentially hangs up on a taxpayer because its switchboard is overloaded and cannot handle additional calls.

Olson noted that the decline in taxpayer service imposes increased compliance burdens on taxpayers and may lead to erosion in taxpayer trust. “For a tax system that relies on voluntary self-assessment by its taxpayers, none of this bodes well,” she wrote. “In fact, there is a real risk that the inability of taxpayers to obtain assistance from the government, and their consequent frustration, will lead to less voluntary compliance and more enforced compliance.”

The report attributes the decline in taxpayer service levels to the reduction in IRS funding and reiterates the Advocate’s longstanding view that the IRS requires additional funding to meet taxpayer service needs. OIson commends the IRS for undertaking development of a new concept of operations that aims to establish a vision for where the IRS should be in five years. However, Olson expresses concern that the IRS continues to view itself primarily as an enforcement agency, with taxpayer service receiving less emphasis. “It should be emphasized that more than 98 percent of all tax revenue collected by the IRS is paid voluntarily and timely. Less than two percent is collected through enforcement action,” the report says. “Thus, increasing enforced collection would be a hollow victory if voluntary compliance declines because of decreasing taxpayer service and the attendant loss of good will.”

The report also discusses the growing impact of identity theft. In recent years, taxpayers and the IRS have been victimized by identity thieves who use stolen identity information to file fraudulent returns to try to obtain someone else’s tax refund. In each of calendar years 2013 and 2014, the IRS received about 730,000 identity theft cases with taxpayer impact, and over the last three fiscal years, TAS has received an average of about 52,000 identity theft cases a year. The report says a primary focus for TAS during the upcoming year will be to recommend improvements and alternative approaches to reduce the time it takes to achieve complete and accurate resolution of identity theft cases from the victim’s perspective.

The report also notes the most significant new challenge the IRS faced during the 2015 filing season was tax return processing reflecting two central provisions of the ACA – the Premium Tax Credit and the Individual Shared Responsibility Payment (ISRP). The report credits the IRS with doing a commendable job implementing those provisions, including by developing or updating information technology systems, issuing guidance and working with other federal agencies.

The report also identifies nine other areas of focus for the upcoming year, describes TAS’s efforts to improve its advocacy for and service to taxpayers, summarizes pending TAS research initiatives, and provides an update on TAS’s efforts to implement an integrated technology system.

Volume 2 of the report contains the IRS’s responses to the administrative recommendations the NTA made in her 2014 Annual Report to Congress, along with additional TAS comments. Overall, the report made 93 administrative recommendations. The IRS says it has implemented, is implementing, or will implement 45 of the recommendations, although its agreement to do so is contingent on resources in some cases.

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