Just As I Thought

An idea whose time has come

I braced myself for a slew of news stories covering last-minute tax filers yesterday — you know the type, reporters out live at the local post office, making tongue-in-cheek comments about people who are waiting in line at 11:00 to mail their tax returns.
I wisely avoided TV last night.
But this morning I read in the Washington Post about the amazing change this year: no long lines. It seems that electronic filing has finally come of age.

If you looked closely enough yesterday, you could almost see the tumbleweeds blowing through the post office across from Internal Revenue Service headquarters at Massachusetts Avenue and North Capitol Street.

“I haven’t seen a line all day,” said IRS spokesman Sam Serio, who sneaked out of his office a few times to grab a smoke. It was the deadline to file federal, state and local taxes, and there should have been a mob of frantic filers outside. “In all prior years, I have seen 200 to 300 people,” he said. This year, he said, he’d seen only two or three at a time, lamenting the absence of what IRS veterans call the “procrastinators’ parade.”

The Information Age has finally caught up with the medieval custom of levying taxes on the citizenry. For the first time since the government started offering electronic filing in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there is a chance that more than half the country’s taxpayers will file their returns over the Internet.

As of Monday, Serio said, 51.8 million out of 89.4 million federal tax returns had been filed electronically, a 12 percent increase over last year. State tax agencies, too, reported that e-filing was on the rise. In Maryland, 879,000 out of 1.8 million returns had been filed electronically, with the biggest increase among senior citizens. In Virginia, the figure was 1.2 million out of 2.5 million, and in the Internet-savvy District, where Serio was gazing at the near-vacant post office, 71,227 tax returns had been filed electronically vs. 45,627 on paper.

… According to the IRS, 16 percent to 20 percent of printed applications have errors; the error rate on electronic applications is less than 1 percent, because the computer does the math.

The arithmetic wasn’t so great for the U.S. Postal Service, which would have gotten at least 37 cents from each of those 51.8 million federal returns that were instead sent over the Internet. That’s a total of at least $14 million.

The news made George Olsen, the postmaster in Annapolis, shake his head.

“We believe you should mail your tax return certified,” he said earnestly.

Sour grapes for the post office.

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