Next best thing to a tax cut

Try to imagine an April 15 that comes and goes, much as any other day: no deadline for tax returns.

Because there would be no tax returns.

That prospect is one of several efforts under way to simplify a US tax system that many call too complex.

The average taxpayer currently spends at least 27 hours on taxes. But by one estimate, some 50 million Americans with relatively simple tax affairs would qualify for "no return" tax filing.

Uncle Sam would do the job for them, and the Internal Revenue Service is currently putting together a team to devise a "return-free" system.

"We are going to take the challenge very seriously," says Robert Barr, the IRS assistant commissioner in charge of the project. "But we have a lot of hard work ahead of us."

Separately, House minority leader Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri, will introduce again a bill this year to make the system so simple that tax forms would arrive printed on a postcard.

His 10 Percent Tax Act would put some 75 percent of taxpayers in a 10 percent bracket by eliminating most preferences, gimmicks, and loopholes, though not the deduction for home-mortgage interest.

It seems unlikely the Republican majority will let it pass. But both parties at least talk about tax simplification.

Most British taxpayers couldn't care less about tax time. They don't file returns. Employers deduct taxes from paychecks - so no refunds, no taxes due, no forms.

"The average Brit wouldn't recognize a tax form if you showed it to him," says Joel Slemrod, a tax expert at the University of Michigan.

The IRS must give its first annual report on a return-free tax system to Congress by June 30, 2000. If the IRS can modernize its computers as planned, the system could be ready by 2007.

In the meantime, the IRS task force will look at details: Should the IRS or employers fill out the tax forms? How should the taxpayer approve the tax statement? What are the costs?

But unless the White House and Congress cooperate, the prospects of a return-free tax system look dim.

Only last week, President Clinton proposed a tax credit of $1,000 a year to cover people who need long-term care. It might benefit 2 million people, the White House says.

And while many taxpayers might willingly spend an extra hour or two on their taxes to save $1,000, the measure would further complicate taxes, as did a 1997 tax bill with provisions for education deductions and credits.

To Iris Lav, an economist with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the idea of tax simplification is "oversold." She says the complexities in the system either serve social purposes or make the system more equitable.

The Earned Income Tax Credit, for instance, is probably the government's most effective antipoverty weapon.

Tax deductions and complex definitions of income and expenses are meant to ensure the system is fair to all.

"Some parts of the tax system are inevitably complex," agrees Gene Steuerle, an economist with the Urban Institute, another Washington think tank. "It's a complex economy."

For many taxpayers, with wage income and little else, filing a tax return is already relatively simple with the 1040EZ or 1040A forms. Or they transmit needed information by phone or Internet.

IRS efforts to computerize tax filing aim to make the job simpler and less expensive for the IRS.

The IRS is somewhat handicapped by the difficulty in hiring costly computer specialists in a tight job market.

Meanwhile, private software packages, such as TurboTax and Kiplinger TaxCut, simplify the process for many citizens, but for a price.

Not surprisingly, key members of Congress, who get campaign contributions from softwaremakers Intuit and H&R Block, have not allowed the IRS to produce and offer free tax software.

In a return-free system, the IRS would collect information on wage, interest, and dividend income from various forms already on file. You would only confirm the IRS estimates of income and tax due.

If successful, the system might also trim the estimated $75 billion the IRS spends each year on enforcement and the extra money and time individual and corporate taxpayers need to compile income and expense data and fill out the necessary forms.

For many of the 126 million individuals expected to file tax returns this year, the complexities of the system mean a time-consuming task ahead.

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