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States give tax cheats one last chance to 'wipe slate clean'

For most it is a question of conscience . . . or fear. The list includes an Arizona-based FBI agent, a Missouri insurance company, and two Massachusetts nuns. All voluntarily turned themselves in. They were all tax delinquents.

In the broadest tax-amnesty programs ever initiated in the United States, Arizona, Missouri, North Dakota, and Massachusetts have offered to waive criminal charges and fines for residents who have failed in the past, for whatever reason, to pay their state taxes.

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The action comes at a time when budget officials are scrambling to raise extra revenue to help fatten skimpy state budgets. The budgets have been particularly hard hit during the past recession and as a result of Reagan administration cuts in federal funding to states.

The amnesty programs are designed to encourage the payment of back taxes while at the same time boosting the number of active taxpayers on the tax rolls in the participating states. It is also seen as a last-chance, one-time-only opportunity for tax delinquents to settle up their back taxes and interest before the states initiate large-scale crackdowns on tax cheats.

The offer to, as one official put it, ''wipe the slate clean,'' has been taken up by more residents than any of the state tax officials had anticipated.

It was considered so successful in North Dakota that the amnesty deadline has been extended by a month, from Oct. 31 to Nov. 30.

In Massachusetts, where a three-month tax amnesty began Oct. 17, tax officials have already received 10,000 inquiries and payments of more than $750, 000 in back taxes.

Among those who turned themselves in was an 80-year-old electrician who hadn't filed a state tax form for 43 years. A little wary of the sincerity of officials in a state once nicknamed ''Taxachusetts,'' the electrician asked a friend to wait outside the tax office with bail money - just in case.

Two nuns in the Bay State took advantage of the tax amnesty to pay back taxes for a meals operation they ran.

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In Missouri, an insurance company startled tax officials when it paid back $ 750,000.

No one is quite sure who first thought of having a tax amnesty, but Arizona is said to be the first state in the country to offer such a broad program. The amnesty, which ended last January, was part of the ''Arizona Tax Hunt,'' a statewide crackdown on tax delinquents that netted the state more than $35 million in previously unpaid taxes. The amnesty is credited with bringing in $6 million of that total.

Greg Smith of the Arizona Department of Revenue says the idea of an amnesty was born in a burst of inspiration on an Arizona Interstate. ''I was driving down the freeway one day, and I was thinking how the library has a grace period for overdue books. And I just thought, why not try it with taxes?''

The idea has sparked a hot debate among some state tax officials, even in the states that have held amnesties. For starters, the US Internal Revenue Service opposes the concept of holding a tax amnesty. In addition, there are ethical questions of whether it is right to overlook carte blanche what in many cases amounts to years of law breaking.

And there is the question of whether amnesty offers are fair to honest taxpayers. There are also concerns that offering an amnesty might encourage residents to withhold their taxes in anticipation of future tax amnesties.

But officials in the states that have held amnesties stress that the amnesty is a one-time opportunity - it will not be repeated. They also stress that it is only one part of a wider enforcement effort. The amnesty has been offered as a ''last chance'' before state tax collectors pull out all the stops against tax evaders.

But there is another side to tax delinquency. Not all tax delinquents are deliberately trying to cheat the state. Some are chronic procrastinators - others simply can't afford to pay.

According to North Dakota tax commissioner Kent Conrad, very few ''big fish'' took advantage of his state's tax amnesty.

Though he expects to collect between $65,000 and $100,000 in back taxes and interest, the average liability returned to the state was about $100 per tax return.

The amnesties in Arizona, Missouri, and Massachusetts mark efforts in those states to launch revitalized tax collection and enforcement programs - where almost none existed before. The investigative sections of the revenue departments in those states have been completely overhauled and beefed up with new personnel and computerized systems of tracking tax cheats.

''It's a whole new ball game,'' says Richard King, Missouri's director of revenue.

''Not one person has served a single day of time for tax evasion in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts - we hope we are going to change that,'' says Thomas D. Herman, first deputy commissioner at the Massachusetts Department of Revenue.

Indeed, get-tough steps are already being taken. Tax evasion has been upgraded from a misdemeanor to a felony. In addition, the state makes public the names of persons and corporations owing $5,000 or more in back taxes, and has threatened to revoke the government-authorized business licenses of people owing back taxes.

In September, Massachusetts brought indictments against seven individuals and eight corporations in cases involving unpaid taxes totaling more than $1 million.

''Slowly but surely it is getting through to people that tax evasion is not a victimless crime,'' says Harry Durning of the Massachusetts Department of Revenue.

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