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Tax day: 1040 reasons you should know Nina Olson

Nina Olson is the National Taxpayer Advocate – the voice of the public at the IRS. She's trying to help you navigate the tax code you love to loathe.

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Fogg says Olson founded the clinic at a significant personal sacrifice, since fundraising for tax assistance isn't the same as asking for money for, say, needy children.

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"I felt it was important to have her out [to events] every so often just to feed her," he says.

In the late '90s, the arc of her career in legal help intersected, in a random way, with Congress's efforts to reform the IRS. A lawyer she met during one difficult case introduced Olson to his spouse, a congressional aide who ended up inviting her to testify on Capitol Hill. Olson calls it "totally accidental that I came to the attention of Congress." And when the job of NTA became open a few years later, Olson says it was only a friend's push that got her to throw her résumé into the mix.

While the job may have come to her through a bit of serendipity, there's nothing laid back about her approach to it today. IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman, commenting via e-mail, praises Olson's "valuable insights," while experts outside the IRS commonly say she's a tireless and passionate voice for taxpayers.

"I don't know that somebody else in that position could have done a better job than she has," says Dan Pilla, a longtime tax lawyer with a national practice based in St. Paul, Minn.

Ultimately, the job of making life easier for taxpayers rests with Congress. Yet the persistent trend is that lawmakers love to tinker with the tax code, and taxpayers often love the resulting deductions and credits, which add to its complexity.

Perhaps Olson's most basic message over the years has been the need for tax simplification. She testified last year that, as of 2008, tax-payers spend about $1 on compliance costs (paying to fill out the paperwork) for every $10 they send to the federal government in tax payments. Americans spend as many as 6 billion hours a year complying with tax laws. Against that backdrop, the miracle may be that compliance is so high: Americans voluntarily pay 83 percent of the taxes they owe.

To Olson, public concerns about fairness are at least partly linked to complexity. If a tax system isn't understandable, it's not going to seem fair. "People underestimate how much complexity erodes taxpayer trust in their government," she says. "We just profoundly need tax reform."

Other experts urge the same thing, for purely economic reasons. They argue that a streamlined tax code will help spur growth, as well as make revenue collection more efficient.

While championing larger issues, Olson is never far from the granular elements of the tax code. On one typical day, in addition to meetings in her office, she buzzes to Baltimore for a town-hall meeting with the Maryland branch of her staff, known as Taxpayer Advocate Services. It's partly a pep talk, partly a chance to hear what concerns are surfacing from taxpayers.

Then it's on to deliver an early-evening talk to tax lawyers and law students. In her speech, in addition to hitting her favorite general themes, she lashes out about a specific concern: the recent IRS treatment of people with offshore accounts. Saying that some people who haven't acted as tax evaders are facing harsh penalties, she gets laughs from the audience by joking that, with so many dual citizens north of the border, "the entire population of Canada is terrified."

That prompts lawyers in the audience to pipe up about their own pet peeves, with one citing a particular oddity of the estate tax.

Olson listens intently. She seems ready to add another case to her portfolio. "Let me work on that," she says. "I commit to you that I will."

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