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Tax amnesty - one-time take

Massachusetts has just tried a disarmingly simple approach to collecting taxes that people owed but hadn't paid - and it worked. The Bay State offered amnesty for three months to anyone who owed it taxes, provided they squared fiscal accounts. And pay up they did, an estimated $40 million, far more than even the most optimistic expectation.

It's something other states, and the federal government, ought to think about doing. In recent months three others have done the same thing - Arizona, Missouri, and North Dakota. They, too, achieved success.

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The American tax system depends for its success on voluntary compliance; tax officials say the level of honesty is quite high. Yet enormous sums that are owed government at all levels lie unreported or uncollected - by one estimate as much as $100 billion a year.

Many taxpayers who took advantage of the Massachusetts program had not previously filed the required returns. Some of them likely would not have been caught or, if found out, prosecuted successfully, inasmuch as their cheating had occurred so long ago that the statute of limitations had run out.

Evidently they yearned, deep down, to square accounts with their government - and their inner selves. That they decided to pay up is a heartening indicator that the basic level of honesty in American society is higher than sometimes given credit for.

So many people responded to the program that state offices remained open the final weekend and until midnight on the last day.

Officials had warned that the amnesty was a one-time occurrence, as it had to be. Repeated offers would only tempt the weak-willed to withhold proper tax payment until the anticipated amnesty time rolled around, and that would be unfair to the scrupulously honest. But as a one-time thing, it has much to recommend it.

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