Like millions of Americans, Karen and Bill Wiater annually pay a specialist to prepare their income tax forms.
“It’s too complicated,” said Bill Wiater, a senior citizen who lives in Crete. “I’ve had someone doing mine for years and years.”
Who can blame him?
The federal income tax code is more than 4 million words covering 9,000 plus pages. From 2001-2012 alone, there were 4,600 changes, more than one per day.
“Yes,” Bill Wiater said, “We’d probably do our own taxes if it was easier and simpler.”
Most Americans -- about 60 percent -- use some type of assistance when preparing their taxes, said Annelise Wiens, a spokeswoman for H & R Block, the nation’s largest tax preparation service.
In fact, the company’s tax preparers, each with an average of eight years in the industry, must take 15 hours of continuing education and 35 hours of tax education annually to keep up with changes and additions to the tax code.
A report by Bank of America/Merrill Lynch said that while the complexity of the tax code may continue to be discussed as a major failing, few people anymore expect taxpayers, or even most tax experts, to have a full grasp of the entire code.
“And as for simplifying the code Dave (Rep. Dave Camp, the chairman of the House committee on Ways and Means) Camp’s tax reform bill was 979 pages long,” the report said.
The last major revision of the Internal Revenue Code was in 1986.
However a report in Forbes magazine contends that the public seems unconcerned with the need to fix the tax code as a poll shows that tax reform did not make the list of the most important national problems.
David Bochnowski, chairman and CEO of Munster-based People’s Bankcorp Inc., said he would like to know “why tax forms are now so complex that you need a professional to do them.”
“Even Turbo Tax is a form of professional help,” Bochnowski said. “It’s very hard to understand and follow it’s complexities.”
Any reform of the tax code must have “fairness and simplicity,” he said.
“We don’t have either right now,” he said. “Everyone knows the issues but no one knows how to resolve them. The current tax code is for another time. We have to look at the alternatives. What are the give ups, but what are the returns.”
The tax code is supposed to and does influence behavior, he said. Therefore, jettisoning deductions can have unintended consequences. For example, eliminating the real estate tax deduction may make it less likely people would purchase homes, Bochnowski explained.
“Simplification is good,” said Jim Thomas, an accounting professor at Indiana University Northwest. “But that’s probably not going to happen.”
There are many, many ideas on how to make the tax code simpler, but no one agrees on how to do it, Thomas said.
“There are many problems with it and many general approaches, but they all have trade-offs,” Thomas said.
Some feel the government should lower taxes to stimulate the economy, while others feel the government should only use tax increases as a last resort when the economy is faltering, he said.
“Those two groups in Congress are typically at odds on how to do either,” Thomas said.
Middle-class Americans want to keep the deduction the tax code allows, such as the interest on home mortgages, real estate taxes, and charitable contributions and would fight any attempts to remove them or any elected officials who espoused those removals, Thomas said.
A “flat tax” where everyone pays relatively the same rate has been touted.
“It sounds great,” Thomas said. “Now rates vary from 0 to 39.6 percent, With a flat tax everyone would pay in the low 20 percent range.”
But again using a flat tax would remove the deductions prized by the average American. Plus, with a flat tax corporations wouldn’t be able to take deductions for the benefits they offer employees, such as health insurance, sick pay, vacations, making the flat tax more repugnant to the average taxpayer, according to Thomas.
There have been proposals to impose higher tax rates on the wealthy, “but people always say that takes away the money they would spend on new business investment. I think everyone agrees there’s a lot of simplification needed,” he said. “It will happen some way, but the country still has a great debt so it still has to charge taxes.”
Another approach is to limit individual and corporate deductions, he explained.
“But Congress put many deductions into the tax codes to help their contributors and neither group would want them removed."
“Many corporations have lawyers on staff who help write the tax code and have lobbyists to see that the proposals are put into place."
The 2014 Bank of American/Merrill Lynch report also said that one of the reasons the tax code hasn’t been simplified is that tax calculations have become automated.
“In some sense, tax reformers can be said to have been TurboTaxed,” the report says. “That is, the declining cost of computing software and hardware make it unnecessary to know most of what the tax code is doing… The lack of a hue and cry among taxpayers for tax reform may be partially the result of this automation of the code. One can get a copy of TurboTax online for $27.”
President Barack Obama has offered a detailed set of tax loophole closers and measures to broaden the tax base. Observers however, doubt his proposal can win the support of the U.S. House and Senate which Republicans holding the majority in Congress.
The President proposals include “cutting tax preferences for high-income households; eliminating special tax breaks for oil and gas companies; closing the carried interest loophole for investment fund managers; and eliminating benefits for those who buy corporate jets.”
A recent White House statement says tax reform should draw on those items, together with the elimination of additional inefficient tax breaks, to finance the reduction of marginal rates and meet the President’s other tax principles, including the Buffett Rule. The rule says, “No household making more than $1 million annually should pay a smaller share of their total income in taxes than middle-class families.”
“In the absence of fundamental tax reform, the President believes these measures should be enacted on a stand-alone basis, along with permanent extension of the middle class 2001 and 2003 tax cuts,” the White House report concludes.