January 11, 2012 (Associated Press) — WASHINGTON - The Internal Revenue Service can't keep up with surging tax cheating and isn't sufficiently collecting revenue or helping confused taxpayers because Congress isn't giving it enough money to do its job, a government watchdog said Wednesday.
To cope with its growing and increasingly complex tasks, the agency is relying more on computer software designed to weed out fraud, Nina E. Olson, the national taxpayer advocate, said in her annual report to lawmakers.
But errors are abundant, creating additional work for the agency when taxpayers dispute its findings, the report said. The agency's use of computer systems sometimes ends up eroding taxpayers' rights, and people are having a harder time getting through to the IRS by telephone or letter, she said.
"The overriding challenge facing the IRS is that its workload has grown significantly in recent years while its funding is being cut," said Olson, an independent watchdog within the IRS. "This is causing the IRS to resort to shortcuts that undermine fundamental taxpayer rights and harm taxpayers - and at the same time reduces the IRS' ability to deliver on its core mission of raising revenue."
IRS spokeswoman Michelle Eldridge said to combat burgeoning cases of fraud, the IRS uses congressionally approved compliance programs that are constantly audited to make sure people's rights are protected.
"While fewer dollars in a tight budget environment impacts elements of taxpayer service, it does nothing to erode our protection of taxpayers," she said.
By pointing her finger at the IRS budget, Olson was highlighting a politically sensitive issue. Especially in times of huge federal deficits, many lawmakers have shown little interest in being generous to the widely unpopular agency, which processes 141 million individual tax returns annually, including almost 120 million requests for refunds.
Congress cut the IRS budget to $11.8 billion this year. That is $300 million less than last year and $1.5 billion below the request by President Barack Obama, who argued that boosting agency spending would fatten tax collections and improve service.
Those arguments did little to persuade lawmakers.
"Like families across the country, the IRS will have to do more with less," Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., who heads the House Appropriations subcommittee that controls the agency's budget, said last fall.
Olson's report came days after the IRS estimated that people and companies underpaid their taxes by a huge $385 billion last year after audits and other enforcement efforts, compared with around $2.3 trillion the agency collected. Those underpayments come as lawmakers hunt ways to pare federal deficits exceeding $1 trillion yearly.
"Yet obtaining a little extra money to bring in a lot of extra money remains an intractable challenge for the IRS, and that is unfortunate," the report said.
Underscoring the IRS' volume of work, the report said the agency contacted taxpayers 15 million times in 2010 to change their claimed tax liability. Only 1 in 10 of those contacts was considered an audit, meaning most were denied the additional rights audits allow, including the ability to go to tax court.
The agency's increased reliance on computers means it is having less personal contact with taxpayers. The IRS is increasingly using "practices and procedures that harm taxpayers by acting on assumptions of noncompliance arrived at by automated processes that do not solicit, encourage or allow taxpayer response," the report said.
It said the number of returns seeking refunds that agency computers set aside for screening for possible fraud grew by 72 percent, to 1.1 million, from 2010 to 2011.
The report blamed growing numbers of people who submit multiple false returns via electronic filing. The growth of refundable tax credits for purchases of first homes, college costs and other expenses is also encouraging bogus claims, since refundable credits can produce cash payments to people owing no taxes.
Olson's report said the IRS handled more than 226,000 cases claiming identity fraud in 2011, a 20 percent increase over 2010. Thieves often request refunds by using the Social Security number of a person they falsely claim as a relative, frequently early in the filing season before the actual taxpayer submits his or her return.
"You want to make sure you're not abusing the taxpayers by letting dollars go out the door," Olson said in an interview. Otherwise, "taxpayers are going to get disgusted" and lose faith in the tax system.
In one measure of errors, Olson's bureau received 21,000 complaints from taxpayers last year after the IRS blocked requested refunds because it suspected fraud. Three in four of them eventually qualified for the refunds, which averaged $5,600 and typically took six months to reach taxpayers.
In addition, the IRS corrected 10.6 million "mathematical errors" in taxpayers' returns in 2010, more than double the 4 million it corrected in 2005, the report said. But the IRS itself made mistakes - out of 300,000 returns on which it disallowed exemptions for dependent children, it had to restore the exemption just over half the time.
The report said that at the end of last year, it took the agency more than six weeks to answer nearly half of taxpayers' letters and faxes dealing with adjustments to their returns. The agency does not accept emails from taxpayers, Olson said.
And between 2004 and last year, the portion of taxpayers' phone calls the IRS answered fell from 87 percent to 70 percent.
"Few government agencies or businesses would be satisfied if their customer service departments were unable to answer three out of every 10 calls," the report said.
Highlighting tax code complexity, 4,428 changes have been made to the 3.8 million-word code over the past decade, the report said, including an estimated 579 changes in 2010.