Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Sound You Hear is New York State Sucking...

I recently received a decree from New York State demanding that I pay them over one thousand dollars in taxes, interest, and penalties for tax year 2008. I couldn’t figure out from this decree why the state was demanding this pound of flesh. It seemed to me they were claiming that I had made some $17,000 dollars in salary in 2008 than I actually did. Only after a lot of research and lot of contacting of politicians and New York State Tax and Finance Department (NYSTF) bureaucrats did I learn, and this from a kindly tax accountant in the bowels of the NYSTF I talked to by phone (the NYSTF online service is next to useless), finding kindly bureaucrats in the NYSTF bureaucracy, by the way, is not an easy task, did I discover that I, someone who had never made a mistake in forty previous years of submitting taxes, had been making a mistake on my tax forms for several years. I immediately amended my tax forms for 2008, 2009, 2010 and paid the tax amounts I calculated I owed. But that, of course, was not the end of it. Now I am now experiencing the joys associated with the nonchalant and arbitrary ways the NYSTF Department really works.

I believe I should not be held liable for interest (NY State, by the way, does not calculate interest the way the Fed does and banks do, no, they have their own little method for calculating interest on taxpayers taxes) and penalties NYSTF charges as a result of the mistakes I made on my 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011 tax forms. In fact, I think I should be refunded the monies I paid to the state for my mistakes and I think that I should be allowed to keep a cheque for the incorrect refund amount New York State recently sent me for 2011 AFTER I had amended my return on 12 April. The reasons are two.

First there's semantics. The line in question, the line that refers to “federal deductions”, says “federal deductions”. I took this phrase on line 10 of IT 150 and line 17 of IT 201 literally and put my and my wife’s federal standardised deductions on those lines. Why, the tax department asked and you, dear unreaders, may ask did I not look at the instructions for those lines? I didn’t think I needed to. I only go to the instructions when the line in question is unclear. This line did not seem unclear to me whatsoever. It asked for “federal deductions” and that is what I put on those lines. It is my contention that if the New York State Tax and Finance Department (NYSTF) wanted only federal itemized deductions in that box that is what they should have asked for.

I would, by the way, be interested in knowing how many other taxpayers have made the same mistake I did. I suspect that the reason the NYSTF has added a box at the top of the new tax form asking if taxpayers itemized deductions suggests that I am not alone in making this error. And if I am not alone this alone should be reason enough for NYSTF to clarify NYS tax forms and change the phrase on the forms from “federal deductions” to “federal itemized deductions”. I am not, as you can imagine dear unreaders, holding my breath waiting for this to happen.

NYSTF incompetence doesn’t extend only to semantic domains. The amount of federal deductions I put in the line asking for how much federal deductions I was claiming not surprisingly equaled the amount that me and my wife took on the federal standard deduction line on US tax form 1040EZ. These are always in round numbers and always add up to the amount of two federal standard deductions. The amount claimed in deductions on this line should have raised a red flag to any competent bureaucrat or any competently written software programme that the NYSTF computer system uses. That it took the state years to realise that I made a rather obvious mistake says again much about the levels of incompetence at NYSTF. And they are, in my not so humble opinion, substantial.

Second, there’s intent. I had no intention to defraud the state or the state tax and finance department. I interpreted the line asking for federal deductions literally. Intent, in my estimation, must be taken into account in any case like mine. If it isn’t, and I don’t think the state is taking this into account in my case, than the state is, in my opinion, approaching if not crossing into tyrany.

Given the poor instructions (asking for “federal deductions” rather than “federal itemized deductions”), instructions that, if they were part of a question on an exam in any college or university in the nation, would be considered evidence of incompetence and would drive students mad, given the failure of NYSTF to discern the obvious, that I put a federal standard deductions amounts standard on the lines asking for “federal deductions, I charge the NYSTF bureaucracy with gross incompetence.

There are some other things related to taxation in NY State that concern me. When I returned from Texas, a state I retrospectively appreciate for not having a state income tax, to New York in 2006 I discovered that the short and sweet easy tax forms that I had used for years had disappeared to be replaced by ever longer and ever more complicated tax forms. This has made me wonder whether the politicians of New York State and lobbyists for corporations like H&R Block and Liberty aren’t in bed together. I find it fascinating that NY State tax forms keep growing larger and larger and more and more complex making them more and more difficult to do for someone like me and I find it bizarre that while the US federal government can offer an EZ tax form for its citizens to use the smaller, yes I realise not much smaller, New York State cannot.

My recent experience with New York State and its bureaucracy has given me a new perspective on the state. I now know what those on the right are talking about when they talk about the state having too much power, too much arbitrary power. Hey, maybe I have had a conversion experience. Call it the miracle on Morton Avenue. But hold on. No, no road to Damascus like conversion has taken place in my life. I have long had a Weberian and Foucauldian wariness of, a cynicism about, and not so good experiences with bureaucracies of all types, state, corporate, educational, academic, whatever. I have long felt that bureaucracies of all types limit human freedom.

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