State’s tax amnesty producing lots of calls

Published 10:16 pm Wednesday, March 18, 2009

MONTGOMERY — Alabama’s reprieve for tax dodgers is producing lots of calls from people interested in paying up without penalty, including one with a tax debt of about $400,000.

State Revenue Commissioner Tim Russell said several hundred people have called since Operation Clean Slate started Feb. 1. Generally, they have been anonymous taxpayers or accountants representing anonymous businesses who have posed hypothetical situations about how much they might owe under certain conditions.

Russell, who has handled some of the calls, said for many, the call is the first step toward removing a burden that has worried them.

“It’s like listening to confession,” he said.

Many of the calls have been from people who didn’t report cash income — usually from second jobs — when they filed their state taxes. But Russell said one was from an accountant representing a major Alabama business that figured it had about $400,000 in unpaid taxes.

“I never ceased to be amazed in this position,” said Russell, who was mayor of Foley before joining Gov. Bob Riley’s Cabinet.

Russell and Riley have agreed to waive penalties and not seek criminal charges against people and businesses that voluntarily file past-due returns by May 15. The program also applies to people and businesses that amend their tax returns to properly report their tax liabilities.

Russell said it’s too early to say how much the program might produce because most people are considering it now and won’t pay until the deadline gets closer. But he said he will be disappointed if it doesn’t produce more than the $3 million that came in during the state’s last amnesty program 25 years ago.

State tax amnesty programs have been around for many years, but more states have used them recently due to shrinking state tax collections.

Bert Waisanen, a fiscal analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures, said tax amnesty programs in recent years have usually met or exceeded state officials’ revenue expectations. But he said Wednesday it’s too early in the recession to tell whether that trend will continue.

Officials with Oklahoma’s State Tax Commission reported taking in $115 million last fall. Virginia took in $98 million last year and Nevada nearly $41 million — with all three exceeding expectations.

Massachusetts is currently operating a program, Connecticut is beginning one later this spring, and Louisiana’s governor has recommended one, subject to legislative approval.

A report by the Washington-based Federation of Tax Administrators shows that over the last 30 years state amnesty programs have had dramatically different rates of success, ranging from less than $1 million in some states to more than $500 million in New York and Illinois.

Russell said Alabama’s waiver of interest and penalties will run out May 15.

By that point, his department will start using a $26 million computer system that can compare financial records from a variety of sources and use that information to find tax cheats much easier.

“This summer we are going to get real aggressive,” he said.