Tax collection system needs look

Published 3:19 pm Wednesday, March 7, 2012

At all levels of government, conservatives resist calls for tax increases and in Mississippi the no-new-tax battle cry was handily encapsulated in former Gov. Haley Barbour’s “I’m-against-raising-anybody’s-taxes” mantra.

Some carry it to the extreme of painting themselves into the political corner of signing “no-new-tax” pledges. Others, particularly in state government, complain loudly about unfunded mandates passed down from the federal government to state governments — only to turn around and pass similar unfunded mandates down to county and municipal governments.

But as I wrote last month, one undeniable fact of any rational discussion of Mississippi taxation is that the state isn’t collecting all the taxes due under the present taxes levied — which understandably makes conservatives even more entrenched in their opposition to any new tax levies.

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Department of Revenue Chairman Ed Morgan has repeatedly sounded that political alarm. After proving that the state’s aging Department of Revenue computer system was poised for a catastrophic “crash” that would serious impede the state’s revenue stream, Morgan was able to get bipartisan support for $35 million to replace the computer system.

But lawmakers didn’t address the concurrent request that Morgan made for additional Department of Revenue agents and analysts to convert the new computer system into a tool to close the “tax gap” between the tax revenue owed under the existing tax structure and the actual amount collected.

Both Barbour and current Gov. Phil Bryant have asked lawmakers for an additional $4.5 to $5 million for the Department of Revenue to fund additional personnel to beef up tax collection efforts and close the “tax gap.” But in the current budget crunch, lawmakers have not funded those requests.

But a Joint Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review (PEER) memo from Sept. 6, 2011 that shows the extent of the delinquent taxes in two key categories — personal state income taxes and sales taxes owed by businesses.

PEER Committee investigators told lawmakers in the memo: “In Fiscal Year 2010, delinquent personal income taxes totaled $70.2 million or 4 percent of the $1.73 billion in personal income taxes owed to the state of Mississippi. In FY 2011, delinquent personal income taxes totaled $43.1 million or 2 percent of the $1.78 billion in personal income taxes owed to the state.

“In FY 2010, delinquent sales taxes owed by businesses totaled $104.6 million, or 4 percent of the $2.58 billion in sales taxes owed by businesses to the state. In FY 2011, delinquent sales taxes owed by businesses totaled $120.9 million or 5 percent of the $2.64 billion in sales taxes owed by businesses to the state.

“Due to a number of factors, including death of the taxpayer, termination of a business, limited collection resources, and bankruptcy protections, the Department of Revenue reports approximately 60 percent of delinquent taxes to be uncollectable.”

While those numbers are jarring to those who pay their taxes, consider the greater implication. Delinquent taxes were at least identified as due and payable. Those taxes are at least “on the books.” The real growth in the “tax gap” comes from taxes that went uncollected because of the lack of manpower and resources to identify, investigate and collect legitimate taxes due and payable under current tax levies. They aren’t “on the books.”

Morgan claims his agency over an 18-month period could collect at least an additional $25 million and realistically as much as $52 million with no new taxes levied — just a stronger effort by the state with more trained personnel to collect the existing taxes due. That’s in addition to delinquent and “uncollectable” taxes.