The National Treasury Employees Union is ringing the warning bell even louder about the impact of budget and staffing cuts on the Internal Revenue Service.
But it’s not clear if the powers on Capitol Hill are listening, even in the heart of tax-filing season.
NTEU President Colleen Kelley said Monday many lawmakers have not heeded the warnings from the IRS, her union and citizen advocates who say five years of budget cuts and four years of staffing reductions will have a dramatic impact on the agency and the country as a whole.
“I continue to be surprised that they haven’t turned the corner on the funding, with the recognition that the IRS brings in 93 percent of the revenue that funds the entire federal government,” Kelley said Monday during a press briefing. “You cannot starve that agency, watch them bring in less revenue and then wonder why there is not enough money to fund fill-in-the-blank, whether it’s Homeland Security, Department of Defense, Veterans Affairs or Social Security. Whatever it is, there is a direct connection. There is nothing tangential about it. For those voting against direct funding, some of it is philosophical. They just oppose whether in a large part it’s the IRS but also government. But I also think they have earplugs in and they are not taking their responsibility serious in dealing with the facts.”
IRS Commissioner John Koskinen and NTEU’s previous attempts to educate Congress haven’t gotten far enough, so now the union is pressing lawmakers with stories from the field.
“An employee at the call site in Pittsburgh said, ‘It killed me to know that, because of budget cuts that we have no control over, only 30-something percent of all calls that come in each day are being answered. That is a horrible percentage and certainly does not instill confidence in our federal government,'” Kelley said. “Here’s one from a walk-in site, a taxpayer assistance center down in Farmers Branch, Texas, ‘Taxpayers are stating they are standing in line outside the building beginning at 4 a.m. Families are trying to submit their W-7 applications to get Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers at the taxpayer assistance center and they are standing there for six hours or more. And in order to get those numbers, every applicant in the family has to be present so that includes young children, who are often subjected to cold weather and rain as they are waiting to get into the building.'”
Kelley said IRS employees told NTEU that citizens are frustrated and often direct their anger at them.
“Another employee from a call site said, ‘If there are too many calls in the cue, the taxpayers are told to call back at a later date and they are automatically disconnected. That is called a courtesy disconnect,'” she said.
Seasonal workers furloughed
NTEU says the staffing shortages are worse in some parts of the country.
Kelley said data from the IRS showed Montana lost 33 percent of its IRS personnel in the last five years, followed by Hawaii, Wyoming, Nebraska and Mississippi. She said California saw the biggest decline of total employees, losing more than 3,000. Georgia (1,800), Texas (1,300), Missouri (1,200) and New York (1,100) rounded out the top five states.
“That means taxpayers across the country cannot get what they need to file returns. They are going to make mistakes. It will cause delays for taxpayers,” Kelley said. “Many of the walk-in centers today are staffed by one or, maybe, two employees. In some of these communities, those taxpayer assistance centers have actually closed.”
She added that budget reductions forced the IRS to lay off most seasonal employees after only four months, instead of their usual stint of 6-to-8 months. This is adding to the delayed responses and poor customer services that many citizens are complaining about, she said.
“It’s no surprise that the IRS is facing challenges in providing customer service to the public during this tax season,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “On several occasions, Commissioner Koskinen has testified before the Oversight Committee that the inadequate funding and deep personnel cuts at the IRS have negatively impacted the agency’s ability to assist millions of Americans with their taxes. It is Congress’ responsibility to ensure the IRS receives the resources they need to effectively and efficiently serve the American people.”
Kelley reiterated many of the same points Koskinen has made over the last few months as he tried to convince Congress of the dire straits the bureau faces:
Since 2010, the IRS budget has decreased by $1.2 billion to $10.9 billion in 2015. For fiscal 2016, the IRS requested $12.9 billion, which would return it to above the 2010 level. Kelley said she hopes Congress meets the White House’s request, but if not, at the very least stops the budget bleeding and begins to restore some funding.
The IRS workforce is down by more than 18,000 full-time and seasonal employees, or 16.7 percent. The 2016 request would add 3,000 more employees to answer questions from taxpayers.
There are 26 percent fewer employees answering calls this tax season as compared to last year.
More than 60 percent of all calls to the IRS about tax filing go unanswered.
The workforce is in trouble with 25 percent eligible to retire today and 40 percent by 2019 and there has been a hiring freeze since 2010.
“For years, we’ve heard concerns about the ‘brain drain’ confronting the federal workforce as large numbers of workers head toward retirement. The IRS has been dealing first hand with that issue. The problem is aggravated by our steadily declining employee numbers, which in turn are driven by our budget cuts. The high- water mark of the agency’s workforce in terms of size was in 1992. Since then we have lost more than 30,000 full-time employees, and are at our lowest level since the early 1980s,” Koskinen said during a speech at the National Press Club on March 30. “The drop has been accelerating. Between 2010 and 2014, the IRS lost over 13,000 employees. These aren’t just positions in Washington or one or two other cities. Every state in the country now has fewer IRS employees than they did a few years ago — meaning fewer people to help with taxpayer service and enforcement. We expect to lose through attrition another 3,000 people — possibly more — by Oct. 1 of this year.”
Koskinen announced during the speech that the IRS would lift its hiring freeze in 2016.
Emails to House and Senate IRS oversight and appropriations lawmakers on both sides of the aisle seeking comment on NTEU’s statements were not immediately returned.
Rep. Ander Crenshaw (R-Fla.), the chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the IRS, said in March during a hearing on the IRS budget request that he was surprised that Koskinen was asking for a $2 billion budget increase.
“Contrary to what the media reports about this committee, we are not here to simply punish the IRS, but rather to hold the agency accountable for their use of taxpayer dollars,” Crenshaw said in his opening statement. “We deliberately lowered the IRS’ funding to a level to make you think twice about what you are doing and why. You don’t have a single dime to spare on anything frivolous or foolhardy or even mediocre. The IRS should focus on its core mission of providing taxpayer services such as processing returns and refunds, providing customer service like answering the phone, and catching tax cheats. If the IRS wants more solid and sustainable funding, then the IRS needs to show Congress and taxpayers that it can manage funding responsibly and administer the tax code objectively.”
Crenshaw said the IRS should study its budget line-by-line to prioritize and reengineer its business practices instead of asking for more money.
Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.), ranking member of the Appropriations Subcommittee, said at the same hearing that the math is simple. For every dollar the subcommittee cut last year, the country lost almost $6 in tax revenue.
“For us, those lessons are that overworked and short-staffed IRS employees simply are unable to provide that same level of service to taxpayers as they have in the past, and every year it gets worse,” Kelley said. “The IRS lacks the staff to deal with the growing crime of identity fraud and identity theft. Congress should wake up to the fact that all taxpayers are suffering as result of these IRS personnel and staffing shortages.”