This year our federal tax forms are incredibly confusing, but it's not the IRS's fault, and it's not something that is going to be solved with the latest regressive "flat tax" plan. Rather, this year's tax filing confusion is caused by the previous Congress, which in the months before the Republicans lost power, procrastinated as long as possible before extending several tax deductions and credits. At that point it was too late for the IRS to include these deductions and credits on the tax forms, which were already printed and distributed. (To be honest, Citizens for Tax Justice has never been fond of these particular tax provisions, the "tax extenders," but we'd rather they be enacted permanently or not at all, as opposed to having Congress revisit them every couple years and spending endless amounts of time that could be applied to more pressing matters.)
Let's say you have kids in college. The general instructions say that the tuition deduction is expired but may have been extended and refers you to the IRS's web site. The 1040 (printed and on-line) has nothing about the tuition deduction. If you go to the website and look under "What's Hot" you find not a word about the tuition deduction. If you search further you can find information about changes in tax laws that apply and you discover that to take the tuition deduction, you go to line 35, which is for something called the "domestic production activities deduction" and write a "T" on the line if you're taking the tuition deduction. If you happen to be taking the domestic production activities deduction and the tuition deduction, you write "B" on the line for "both." Similar instructions are given for those taking the educator expenses deduction, the DC first-time homebuyer credit and the state and local sales tax deduction.
The good news is that this confusion could create support for tax reform and simplication. The bad news is that a lot of the plans peddled as "tax simplification" do not focus on simplification, but rather remove the progressive rates which have nothing to do with this confusion. (Tax tables are provided to tell you how much you actually owe after you work through all these deductions and credits). Our current President has persuaded Congress to enact six tax break bills in six years ... but none have simplified our tax code. Broad tax reform might be a good idea ... in 2009.