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Idaho Senate bashes tax agency as nation's worst

John Miller, Associated Press

BOISE, Idaho (AP) -- The Idaho State Tax Commission got a browbeating Friday, with senators ganging up on what one described as the country's very worst tax collection agency.

Meanwhile, the agency says it was "totally blindsided" by the critique and believes it's unfair.

It all came during a seemingly insignificant vote on giving the commission $200,000, mostly for its audit and collections staff. That turned into a bipartisan verbal smack down accusing the agency's employees of overly aggressive efforts to recover money.

Sen. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, was first to climb into the ring during debate on the Senate floor, describing how a friend had just told him about an unpleasant encounter with auditors.

Pearce regularly bashes the federal government, but in this case, he said his buddy thought the Internal Revenue Service treats people more humanely than do Idaho State Tax Commission employees.

"We have that image with the surrounding states. They know that's how we are," Pearce said. "There's just a mentality — we're going to collect money, come hell or high water."

The commission's funding bill squeaked by, 18-16, but not before even its sponsor, Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Grangeville, was induced to switch her support to a "no" vote.

Tax Commission Chairman Rich Jackson, an accountant, disputed lawmakers' assessment. Jackson said the agency processes more than three-quarters of a million tax returns annually, of which about 26,000 audits occur.

A small number result in conflicts with taxpayers, some of whom are vocal about their dissatisfaction with the agency, he said.

"Typically, I hear the auditors are very nice and did a very good job," Jackson said. "We've got certain people who choose not to pay their taxes. I would expect that all businesses and all citizens of Idaho try and pay their taxes, and anybody who doesn't comply with the law, we should enforce collection."

In recent years, the commission has increased its collection staff to remedy what it calls the tax gap — the amount that's due but goes uncollected because of fraud or taxpayers' mistakes.

The agency said in 2012 that a three-year compliance initiative supported by Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter to hire more auditors allowed it to collect $52 million in taxes that were owed but weren't previously being collected.

Otter's spokesman, Jon Hanian, said tax commissions in many states bear the brunt of taxpayer fury simply because of the nature of their job: to collect revenue from citizens who may be convinced they're paying too much already.

"Pick a state and you'll hear that story," Hanian said. "People don't like tax collectors for obvious reasons. I think they rank somewhere right there by reporters."

According to senators who spoke Friday, however, it goes beyond just natural animosity.

Sen. Les Bock, D-Boise and a former tax lawyer, said given the choice of which agency to deal with, "I'd pick the IRS any time.

"The tendency toward rigidity and strong-arming techniques is far more pronounced with our state Tax Commission," Bock said.

Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell, described how a deceased uncle and former Utah tax commissioner once told him Idaho's auditors were notorious. They're known as "the very worst tax commission to work with in the entire country," Rice said.

Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg and an accountant, said he's grown concerned, of late, about the Tax Commission's stance that it's not subject to limits on how much it can garnish from people's income when recovering delinquent taxes. Consequently, he's working with lawmakers, including Pearce, on potential legislation to tackle that, on grounds that people who owe money still shouldn't be deprived of their livelihoods.

Jackson said his agency is cooperating with legislators on the issue, to craft an appropriate solution that satisfies lawmaker concerns but also requires people to meet their obligations.

While Hill said he has a good relationship with the four tax commissioners who run the Idaho agency — two of them, Ken Roberts and David Langhorst, are former state lawmakers — he still believes the agency's sometimes-overzealous staff gives it a reputation of being a punitive overlord.

"It's almost as if they are trying to justify their existence by finding some obscure thing in the tax law," Hill said. "Not all of them are difficult to work with. But a lot of them are."