While last year's political agenda was scandal, this year the topic seems to be more traditional tax cuts. But if our nation is going to have a real surplus, it's probably necessary for the government to actually collect taxes. And if you think that's a silly issue, consider please my New York City IRS experience. We may have a bigger problem than any of us ever imagined.
A friend of mine had tax troubles a couple of years ago and needed to make a $1,400 payment to avoid wage attachment. Since she worked in Brooklyn and I lived only a few blocks from the Church Street tax office in Manhattan, she called for help. Naively, I agreed. I converted her check to me into cash because the payment order called for cash, certified check, or money order.
After a mercifully brief wait at the tax office, friendly clerks located the file and confirmed the amount required.
Delighted with the ease of my task, I happily counted out a short stack of hundred dollars bills. I should have known better.
"I'm sorry," the clerk said, "we don't take cash."
"I beg your pardon?"
"We don't take cash," she repeated patiently, "certified check or money order."
"But your form specifically says cash is accepted," I answered, pointing to the small print on the back of the official notice.
"We don't accept cash," she said, ignoring the document I waved.
"Wait a minute," I said, the '60s activist in me waking, "right on the money, printed directly on the bill, it says legal tender for all debts public and private. The federal government issues this currency and you're telling me that the federal government won't accept these very same bills in settlement of debt to the federal government?"
Her silent stare was an indicator that maybe I really did understand the bottom line, subtleties notwithstanding. Still, reason, I thought, should be given a reasonable chance. I continued with absolute certainty in the justice of my case, "I don't think you have the legal right to refuse currency."
Finally, when it was apparent that I had no intention of relenting, either my point of view or my spot in line, I was treated to that most ancient of all bureaucratic responses. "I'm sorry, I only work here. You will have to see my supervisor."
"And where is your supervisor? I asked.
"In a meeting."
I turned in desperation to face three fellow sufferers in line behind me and was blessed with enthusiastic and unanimous support. Several people sitting in the awaiting-an-appointment-plastic-chairs joined the cheering section.
"You mean they won't take the man's money?!" one elderly woman shouted in disbelief and at the top of her voice.
Suddenly I remembered that I was dealing with my friend's taxes, not my own, and that she might not appreciate being sacrificed on my altar of principle. I relented, went around the corner, and bought a money order.
Still, longing for vindication, I called the New York City Bureau of Consumer Protection and asked if a merchant had the right to refuse to accept cash. The intense woman on the phone advised me that such policy would be against the law unless the merchant has clearly posted a sign advising customers the establishment will not take currency. She asked me for the name of the offending retailer and I admitted just having visited the IRS.
"Oh, I guess they do what they want," she responded.
Looking for more solid support, I called the Justice Department and reached a man in the federal attorney's office. He was incensed and spoke at length of the injustice of requiring someone to purchase a money order or maintain a checking account. When I told him I was talking about the Internal Revenue Service his response was instant.
"I don't believe you."
"You stood in front of a tax collector with a handful of cash and she sent you out the door?"
"How stupid do you think we are? No one's going to believe that one." He hung up.
I have since come to understand that, in an economy measure, the Church Street IRS office eliminated the position of cashier and solved the resulting service shortage by trying to eliminate cash. Law or justice didn't seem to have much impact on the decision.
OK, we've endured government shutdowns, sex scandals, an entire impeachment process, and look forward to a whole new level of Washington gridlock over the issue of how much we should collect in taxes. Eventually, Congress and the president will come to some sort of agreement and I, like most Americans, am prepared to pay my fair share of the national sacrifice. But, come on guys, are these really the people authorized to collect my money? I'm not sure they'll take it.
*Marty Gallanter, director of development for Dakota State University in Madison, S.D., lives in Tyler, Minn. Neither town has an IRS office and everyone takes cash.