As the 2015 filing season approaches, IRS Commissioner John Koskinen is bracing taxpayers for more reductions in customer service unless the agency receives more funding. According to Koskinen, the IRS is facing its biggest challenge in recent years. Koskinen, who spoke at the annual conference of the National Society of Accountants in August, also predicted that taxpayers will have to wait until after the November elections to learn the fate of many popular but expired tax incentives.
The IRS has experienced budgetary pressures since 2010. The Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA) imposed across-the-board spending cuts on many federal agencies, including the IRS. Some funding was restored last year. Looking ahead, the House has voted to cut the IRS’s budget by $341 million for Fiscal Year (FY) 2015. The Senate has proposed to increase the IRS’s budget by $240 million. Even with the proposed increase, IRS officials have said that the agency’s budget would still be seven percent below funding levels for FY 2010.
The funding cuts have drawn criticism from senior IRS officials. “Funding reductions have significantly hampered the IRS’s ability to carry out its mission,” National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson told Congress. Olson warned that “underfunding of the IRS poses one of the greatest long-term risks to tax administration today.”
Koskinen echoed Olson’s concerns. “Congress is starving our revenue-generating operation. If voluntary compliance with the tax code drops by 1 percent, it costs the U.S. government $30 billion per year,” he explained. “The IRS annual budget is only $11 billion per year.
For many taxpayers, the most visible impact of the budget cuts has been reductions in customer service. Koskinen said that the IRS has cut 5,200 call center employees because of lack of funding. Wait times to speak with the IRS will increase, he predicted. During the 2014 filing season, the IRS’s level of customer service was around 72 percent. The level of customer service for the 2015 filing season could fall to as low as 50 percent without adequate funding, Koskinen cautioned.
Koskinen acknowledged that the funding cuts have fueled efficiencies in the agency’s operations. The agency has reduced hiring, offered buyouts to long-time employees, and cut travel and training costs. “We are becoming more efficient but there is a limit,” he said. “Eventually the effects will show up. We are no longer going to pretend that cutting funding makes no difference.”
Unless extended, a host of expired tax incentives will be unavailable to taxpayers when they file their 2014 returns. These include widely-used incentives, such as the state and local sales tax deduction, the higher education tuition deduction, and transit benefits parity. Businesses also would be impacted, with failure to renew popular incentives, including the research tax credit and the Work Opportunity Tax Credit.
Legislation to extend many of these incentives will likely not be passed by Congress until after the November elections, Koskinen predicted. “Congress needs to understand that the later these are passed and the more complicated they are, the more challenging it is for taxpayers to file accurate returns on time.” Koskinen added that the IRS will be challenged to reprogram its return processing systems for renewal of the tax extenders. As a result, the start of the 2015 filing season could be delayed, he said.
Koskinen lauded the agency’s work to curb tax-related indentity theft. This initiative is a high-profile one. The IRS has worked with other federal agencies and state and local governments to discover and prosecute identity thieves. The IRS has also upgraded its return processing systems to uncover fraudulent returns and has assigned special identity protection numbers to victims of identity theft. “We rejected 5.7 million suspicious returns last year that may have been tied to identity theft,” he said.
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