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Thinking about the government

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I’m aware that anecdotes aren’t data, but here’s a little anecdote that I’ve been pondering for the last day or so.

In August I got a letter from the Colorado Department of Revenue, saying we owed nearly $12,000 in taxes for 2022. The basis for this claim was that I had taken a deduction without the proper documentation.

This was a strange claim, because

(a) I hadn’t taken the deduction they were claiming I took; and

(b) The related deduction I did take did include the proper documentation; and

(c) Even if the deduction I took had been disallowed properly, I would only owe about $850 in unpaid taxes, not $12,000.

So that day I went on DOR website and created an account, which you have to do to file an appeal on line, which I immediately did.

Then a couple of days ago I get another letter, telling me that I failed to file an appeal within the 30 day period for filing appeals that will be considered, so the $12,000 debt is final, they’re going to start garnishing my wages etc.

I go on the website, and try to log on, but mysteriously they have no record of the username I used when I created an account back in August.

So after several minutes going through a phone tree of options (which I notice doesn’t have a Spanish language option) I end up spending close to an hour on the phone with a woman who is obviously working from home — there’s a child in the background, and I wonder if she’s an independent contractor or what. First I ask her why I got a letter saying I didn’t file a timely appeal when in fact I did. She tells me oh those are just generated automatically.

Cool.

Then I spend some time getting her to accept that the deduction the state said I took isn’t the one I took — my return is right on her computer screen of course — and that the one I took is properly documented. She reinstates the deduction and tells me I now only owe $11,100. This then leads to another long discussion about where she’s getting this number from, until we finally figure out that, when the DOR improperly disallowed the deduction, it somehow also removed all of the payments for state income tax that my employer withheld from my paychecks and sent to the DOR. After awhile, she “finds” these payments in the DOR’s “warehouse” (obviously an electronic file of some sort), and credits my account with them, which zeros out my purported liability for back taxes.

So a happy ending, but . . . I have a lot of cultural capital and a whole lot of time to fight bureaucratic wars. What about people who don’t? How many people get a bogus bill for delinquent taxes, and either pay it out of fear, or just ignore it because they’re disorganized, overwhelmed by life etc., until three years later the government is claiming that with interest and penalties they owe three times the original amount they supposedly owed, except now all the appeal deadlines are long past and there’s nothing to be done?

Those are sincere questions: I have no idea what the answers are. (Obviously it goes without saying that an enormous number of people don’t pay taxes that they actually owe. Like Cornel West to take an example not at random).

But the whole thing was rather disturbing.

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