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Who's opposed to free tax help?

Companies whose business is preparing returns, that's who. And their lobbying efforts are paying off.

May 01, 2006|Tom Campbell | Tom Campbell, who represented districts in Northern California in the state Senate and in Congress, is dean of the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley. These views are his own.

NOT MANY people know it, but the state Franchise Tax Board has, over the last several years, offered to complete tax forms for some Californians with simple returns, and to do it for free. This idea is now enshrined in a bill, AB 2905.

The idea is neither Republican nor Democratic. It simply adopts the principle that if the government imposes a burden, it ought to offer to lighten the burden.

Seems like something everyone could support, right? Well, not exactly.

Opposition to this bill comes from private companies that make money by selling tax return products or services. They say filling out tax returns is \o7their\f7 business.

So now, some legislators are saying they oppose this legislation -- supposedly because of concerns about taxpayer privacy. But every piece of information needed to fill out a return for those eligible for this service is already in the government's possession. That's what makes it possible. And eligible taxpayers are reminded, at several points in the process, that they don't have to use the service. It's entirely the taxpayer's call.

WE'RE NOT talking about helping out the wealthy here. This service would be available only to those less affluent Californians whose income comes solely from wages. We're talking about folks to whom the cost of a tax service or a computer program is a lot of money. We're talking about folks who have a lot of anxiety about making an error on their return and need some assistance filling out their forms.

The Franchise Tax Board had been running this system as a pilot study for several years. Of the people who used the system online and replied to a survey on it, 98% wanted to use it again the next year; 96% of those who filed on paper and replied to the survey said the same. Comments were overwhelmingly enthusiastic.

I sat on the Franchise Tax Board last year as the appointee of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. I'm a Republican. My two colleagues on the board were Democrats. We unanimously supported continuing and extending the program. But powerful lobbyists representing tax software sellers got a restriction put into last year's budget bill preventing the program from expanding. This year they're trying to kill it outright.

In all my years as a state senator, a U.S. congressman and state finance director, I never saw as clear a case of lobbying power putting private interests first over public benefit.

The Legislature can prevent another attempt to kill this program by passing AB 2905, and my former boss, the governor, ought to sign it.

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