Tom Clyde: Government in action
April 18, 2014
I had a couple of those unavoidable bureaucratic interactions with government this week. The first was paying income taxes, and the other was renewing my driver’s license. As things like that go, both went smoothly.
As I’ve said before, the main aggravation of the tax return process isn’t the collection of paperwork or filling out the forms. Computers have made that process pretty simple if you are even slightly paying attention through the year. But it may be unnecessary.
There have been a lot of talking heads on TV this last week saying that the whole process is a waste. The data that the bank sends you on interest payments, or that the brokerage sends on dividends, or employers send on withholding, is also all sent to the IRS. In other words, the IRS has about 99 percent of what they need to do your taxes. They got it before you did in most cases. You may have some odds and ends that have to be entered because they don’t get reported by a third party — rental income, tip income, other incidental stuff. Donations may not get reported. So there is something that needs to be entered.
The idea was that the IRS could generate a tax return for you, mail it out with the form filled in with the information they have. You could either accept it or modify it with additional information. It seems so simple. It would require some additional people and additional computer power at the IRS, but the information is mostly there already. It would work for a huge majority of taxpayers. So why don’t we adopt such a simple process?
Preparing tax returns is big business. Accountants, tax preparers, software companies all make good money off an unnecessarily complicated system. They have every reason to lobby in favor of increasing the complication instead of cleaning it up. You’d think Congress would like to change it so that the complexity and corruption of the tax code wasn’t so obvious, but that would require work. And we all know where Congress comes down on the issue of actually doing some work.
The driver’s license renewal was another curious exercise. I did that in the Heber office. You can fill out the forms online and make an appointment, with the result that the process is quick and efficient. Almost pleasant. They require a whole lot of documentation to renew a license. They need to have proof that you are who you claim to be, and that you live where you claim to live. Oddly, the Driver’s License Division will not accept a driver’s license for that purpose.
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Proving that you live where you say you live was a big deal. They are sure that terrorists are lurking out there using false addresses. So what does it take to prove you live where you live? A utility bill will do it, or in my case, telling the very pleasant woman at the counter that I hadn’t moved in 30 years and didn’t plan on moving for another 30. Having a utility bill in my name apparently proves, indisputably, that I live where I live. Except that I get utility bills on rental properties and irrigation pumps and farm buildings in my name. So I could have "proven" to them that I live in any of about a half dozen locations.
We can rest assured that terrorists, who are able to travel the world on phony passports, surely couldn’t produce a phony light bill.
I’m not sure what happens if the utility bill is in the name of your spouse, parent, or roommate. They would also accept a credit card bill. The Questar bill for gas delivered through a pipe works, but not the bill for filling the propane tank. Solar? Good luck. The Amish can’t drive because they don’t have power bills.
The strangest thing, aside from the fixation over the physical address, was that there was nothing in the process that had anything to do with driving a car. I had to take the eye test, demonstrating that I could see (because filling out the forms wasn’t proof enough). Nobody asked or cared if I could actually drive.
That hit me when the kid at the next window, having successfully proved that he lived with his parents, and they had (and paid for) electricity in the house, was sent out to take the driving test. That was a very, very long time ago for me. They explained that he would be required to parallel park. My stomach knotted up and my palms got sweaty.
Thank god all I had to do to get a driver’s license is prove that I had electricity in the house. And when you sign up for electric service, they will ask for a driver’s license.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.