Tax Amnesty: States' Lack of Self-Control Diminishes Tax Fairness


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Despite their obvious unfairness, tax amnesties are a tool frequently used by states during tough budgetary times. By waiving late fees and sometimes reducing the interest rate charged on overdue taxes, state policymakers can provide their state with a quick band-aid fix without having to make the much harder choice of raising taxes or cutting valued services. But penalizing similar taxpayers at different rates dependent only upon whether they decide to pay up during an amnesty period is plainly unfair. The problems associated with amnesties become even worse, however, as soon as a state establishes a habit of repeatedly offering amnesties during tough economic times.

With the possibility of another amnesty always on the horizon, delinquent taxpayers will think twice before settling their debts with the state during normal times, and at normal penalty rates. Creating multiple sets of penalties (one for normal times, and one, lower penalty when budgets shortfalls are projected) therefore reduces fairness by penalizing similar taxpayers differently based only on the timing of their payment, and can also reduce the effectiveness of enforcement efforts and the tax system broadly. These effects can continue long after the most recent amnesty period ends. (Note that this is very similar to the argument against allowing corporations to "repatriate" their profits to the U.S. at a lower rate, a proposal which was recently rejected at the federal level).

Despite the obvious problems, Maryland and New Mexico are both considering legislation to once again provide temporary tax amnesty programs some time in the coming months. New Mexico last provided an amnesty less than a decade ago, while Maryland's last amnesty came in 2001. After that 2001 amnesty, the Maryland comptroller's office noted that "repeated use of amnesties is likely to create cynicism among law-abiding taxpayers, and lessen the need for voluntary compliance with state tax laws, which is vital for our system of taxation". Should another amnesty be offered less than a decade after the 2001 amnesty, growth in taxpayer cynicism seems unavoidable, especially in light of the fact that a similar program offered in 1987 in the state was billed as a "once-in-a-lifetime" opportunity for delinquent payers.

Without a doubt, the momentum in favor of such programs is strong. Alabama is already in the mist of an amnesty period (the state last offered an amnesty in 1984). Massachusetts is currently in the process of deciding upon a date for its amnesty program (Massachusetts last provided amnesty in 2003). Connecticut's program is already slated to take effect on May 1st (Connecticut's last amnesty took place in 2002). And Oklahoma just recently closed its most recent amnesty period, just seven years after its 2002 amnesty.

In this environment, it is extremely important for state policymakers to not only oppose more amnesties, but also to convincingly state that another amnesty will not be offered any time in the near future. For states looking to responsibly close their tax gaps, stepping-up enforcement spending is often a route that can produce sizeable returns, and is undoubtedly much more fair than trying to get something for nothing by arbitrarily waiving penalties in an effort to boost voluntary "compliance". For more specific alternatives to the tax amnesty approach, take a look at these recent enforcement recommendations from Oregon's Department of Revenue.

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