We can understand why some people might have concerns about receiving tax forms that are already filled in by the IRS. We could understand why some would voice those concerns in a public forum. But is a line crossed when the people telling you to voice your concerns are the very ones who stand to benefit financially from your opposition?
The folks at Intuit, best known as the makers of TurboTax, have been trying for the last several years to preempt any attempt by the IRS to launch a “return-free” system that would provide taxpayers with pre-filled tax forms that could then be more quickly and efficiently filed.
The 2002 law that created Free File — the ability to file the simplest of tax returns electronically without having to pay a fee — also established a 10-year period during which the IRS could not set up its own “free, online tax return preparation and filing services.”
That decade is now in the rearview mirror and Intuit is terribly afraid of what it could mean to the company’s bottom line. It has already pumped millions of dollars into lawmakers’ coffers, resulting in multiple (but stalled) bills that would crush return-free filing by permanently extending the ban against the IRS instituting its own free-filing system.
Since its legislative efforts have not yet succeeded, Intuit has been taking a new approach, attempting to spur a grassroots movement by convincing non-profits, along with community and religious leaders, that return-free filing is bad for the average taxpayer.
ProPublica’s Liz Day has looked into a recent spate of op-ed pieces written in opposition to return-free filings, many of which seem to echo the same misinformed messages, but which come from unexpected sources.
For instance, there’s this piece from a rabbi and professor who claims that pre-filled tax forms will hurt “those who need the most support,” because they will have to hire accountants and attorneys to revise these forms.
This op-ed piece omits the fact that the program would be voluntary and that any pre-filled information can be corrected or changed by the taxpayer. It also glosses over the reality that the lowest-income Americans currently either need to sort out their taxes on their own, use an accountant, or pay for services like TurboTax.
Of course, the rabbi’s source for his information might explain these omissions. He tells ProPublica that he wrote the op-ed piece at the behest of a former student, who wrote to him and asked him to present the issue to the Jewish community. What that student didn’t tell the rabbi is that she’s a PR flack for a firm that is tied to Intuit.
“I wish she would have told me that,” said the rabbi after learning this fact.
That same PR firm had recently listed Intuit as a client on its website, but delisted the company after being approached by ProPublica. However, the firm does represent the Computer & Communications Industry Association, of which Intuit is a member — and its only member company that is involved in tax-preparation.
The director of an Oregon non-profit tells ProPublica she was approached by a PR flack who provided her with a template letter for her to send to one of her state’s senators.
When she pressed the flack on who he was representing, he admitted that he was working for the CCIA and that Intuit was indeed a member of the organization.
She says the rep used “a lot of words that advocates would be sympathetic to, like ‘oh, it’ll hurt people with English as a second language.'” But after doing her own research on the topic, she opted to not send the letter and now says she supports return-free filing.
But there are others who didn’t do their research and fired off letters after being contacted by groups with an interest in putting an end to return-free filing before it starts.
The president of the NAACP Delaware State Conference says he sent a letter to lawmakers after being approached by a longtime acquaintance, who just happens to be a lobbyist with a firm that may not be tied directly to CCIA or Intuit, but which specializes in so-called grasstop campaigns, which use advocacy and community groups to spread the desired message.
After being approached by ProPublica, the letter-writer admitted, “We may have to retract so far based on my research.”
Another community leader, the executive director of the L.A.-based Asian Business Association, confesses that he didn’t really look into the information he was given by an unidentified lobbyist that resulted in an op-ed piece against return-free filing.
“There’s some homework needed,” he admitted to ProPublica.