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This is the season when your employer or your bank will mail you income statements so you can do your taxes. Many of us, of course, will wait until April to get started. But if you think you might need to call the IRS to ask a question at some point, budget extra time. Calls to the agency may involve extra time on hold. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.
BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Taxpayer service is poor and getting worse. That's the blunt headline of a report written by the Taxpayer Advocate Service, an independent office within the IRS. It calls the declining quality of service the top problem for taxpayers. How bad? The IRS is predicting it will only be able to answer half of the 100 million calls it expects from taxpayers this year. And those who do get through can expect to wait a half-hour to hear a live voice.
(SOUNDBITE OF IRS AUTOMATED TELEPHONE SERVICE)
COMPUTER-GENERATED SPEECH: For questions about your refund or to check the status of your form 1040X, press or say one.
NINA OLSON: You're going to need to be patient.
NAYLOR: Nina Olson is the national taxpayer advocate.
OLSON: I've joked, you know, bring your knitting. Have some projects that you could do while you're waiting on the phone. And you may have to call a number of times if you need to get through to the IRS.
NAYLOR: Olson says it's worse than she's ever seen it. More individuals and businesses are filing tax returns than ever before. Over 150 million individual returns came into the IRS last year. This year, things will be more complicated for many taxpayers because of the Affordable Care Act, meaning more taxpayers are likely to seek assistance. In the meantime, the IRS' budget has been reduced.
OLSON: If you look at it in terms of inflation, we have estimated it's about a 17-and-a-half percent decrease from 2010 levels.
NAYLOR: The reduced budgets and increased responsibilities mean the IRS is supposed to do way more with a lot less. Olson says it's taxpayers who are losing out.
OLSON: We can't get through to the IRS to get answers to our tax law questions. It increases our burden because we have to pay tax professionals to get answers to our questions. And this is all for the privilege of paying taxes, which is not a painless thing for people. So why are we putting more pain on taxpayers?
NAYLOR: Republicans, who now control Congress and who led the effort to reduce the IRS budget, don't seem too concerned about the agency's woes. It goes back to GOP charges that the agency targeted conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status for extra scrutiny. Republican Senator John Thune of South Dakota.
SENATOR JOHN THUNE: I don't think that, based on the IRS' record over the last couple years, there's a whole lot of sympathy for the complaints that they're now making about not having enough funding. Obviously, they have a job to do. It's an important job. We want to make sure that they have the resources to do that job, to collect the taxes. But wasting resources targeting conservative groups and other things like that obviously is something that we take great issue with.
NAYLOR: IRS Commissioner John Koskinen says the agency's budget is so lean, it may have to close down for two days and furlough employees. Colleen Kelly, president of the NTEU, the union which represents IRS employees, says lawmakers are doing harm and not just to IRS workers.
COLLEEN KELLY: You don't starve them to try to set them up to fail. You especially don't do that to an agency that impacts the entire country, the entire U.S. economy. And it also opens it wide open for tax cheats.
NAYLOR: The IRS says the budget cuts will also mean fewer audits. And while that may sound like good news, it also means about $2 billion less for the treasury than would've been collected. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.
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