Can I effectively protest the actions of my state tax authority?
April 30, 2013 8:41 AM   Subscribe

I'm seeing reporting that bothers me that my state tax authority is targeting artists for auditing based on what sounds like some specious assertions regarding whether their business models and expenses are appropriate. I realized I don't know what I should do to formally protest these actions.

I'll start by saying the reporting I've seen has a clear bias in favor of the artists in question and I haven't seen first-hand confirmation of the assertions that this is part of a growing effort on the part of the tax authority to target working artists and not just an isolated incident. I will continue researching this on my own.

What I'm really interested in is, assuming for arguments sake that these actions are a valid target of protest, what should I do? I can email the general contact for the authority, I can do what I can to spread the word, but these seem pretty weak. When I write my governor or representatives I know at least that they are getting feedback from a voter who has a direct if small impact on their ability to retain their position. Who's in charge of the tax(wo)man?

I understand that as an average voter and citizen there is nothing I can do that will have a particularly large impact. I'm just curious if anyone has input on what the most effective way to register protest about these actions would be.
posted by Luke Skywalker to Law & Government (10 answers total)
Best answer: Assuming you determine there is actually a systematic problem, I think you can be most effective by working with others to lobby state legislators and persons in the executive branch of your state government who have authority over this taxing entity (I'm thinking governor or commissioner). You need to be able to explain what's happening, why it is a problem, and your proposed solution (a change in the relevant statute or rules? different audit procedures?) Are there existing organizations that seek to represent artists at your state capitol? If so, try to get them involved. A single letter or visit from a constituent might not do much, but multiple letters and visits are more likely to have an impact. Perhaps a friendly legislator from a district with lots of artists can be found who would be interested in taking up this cause.
posted by Area Man at 9:22 AM on April 30, 2013

Best answer: Do you have an arts commission or an arts advocacy organization in your area? If so, this is the kind of thing they are made for - reach out to them and see what they can do.
posted by deliciae at 9:38 AM on April 30, 2013

If you want to make a big change, you're going to have to do something big. You can't write a letter/make a call and expect things to change.

What you're talking about is a major change in the way the IRS operates, so you're going to have to have evidence that the auditing rates are actually unfair. You can do this by collecting statistics: no. of audits vs. no. of violations found among artists compared to the same ratio for other groups would probably be the best. If artists are systematically shown to be audited at a higher rate despite the IRS finding a normal number of violations, then you'll have a case.

If you can't make that case (and my suspicion is that if you do find the numbers, you'll find that artists actually are violating enough to justify the higher auditing rate), then your protest is for nothing. Get actual facts before you protest. Just as a general comment, so many people protest out of a perception of some kind of vague unfairness, without any actual supporting evidence, that protesting in general is getting discredited.

That said, the quickest way to draw the tax authorities' attention is to put some skin in the game. Send the IRS a letter saying you will no longer pay any taxes until the issue is cleared up. Get as many of your friends to do it, too. The more, the better. You should expect to do some jail time, but if the cause is that important to you, then that shouldn't be a problem.
posted by luke1249 at 10:51 AM on April 30, 2013

The quintessential form of protest against taxing authorities is tax resistance by not paying taxes. Perhaps the most notable example is Henry David Thoreau's refusal to pay poll tax in protest of the Mexican-American War. The impact of not paying taxes is that it most effectively commands the attention of the taxing authority. They might throw a letter in the trash but they will pay strict notice to your failure to pay. It is up to you to decide how far you would want to take that approach because the penalties for you would become greater the longer you resisted. You might also publicize your tax resistance and encourage others to do so as well.

See also, luke1249's answer.
posted by Tanizaki at 10:52 AM on April 30, 2013

Wouldn't happen to be relating to by any chance...

Formally protesting may not get you anywhere, but you might be able to see if you can get the attention of the legislature. Sometimes a contact from another branch of government can be helpful in reining in excessive things.
posted by jgreco at 11:30 AM on April 30, 2013

Response by poster: Just to clarify I'm not going to stop paying my taxes, and I really don't agree with what seems to be the suggestion that if you don't care enough about an issue to go to jail over it you should do nothing? If you disagree with me about that perhaps you could consider the counterpoint made?

I'm not going to comment further about the specific issue that provoked the question (I left the basic details in because I thought they might draw relevant advice like deliciae's response). I'm interested in answers to this question regardless of the merits of that issue. If I didn't make it clear enough that I'm not certain there is a legitimate grievance in this case and that I intend to follow the question up, I'll reiterate that here.

I won't try to manage responses any more than that but what I'm generally most interested in is things like other organizations (government watchdogs, etc.) that might monitor this kind of thing, which elected representatives might be the most reasonable to contact about an issue of tax law enforcement, actual situations where a real issue with tax law enforcement was effectively protested, etc.
posted by Luke Skywalker at 11:56 AM on April 30, 2013

A lot of tax accountants are ex-IRS. They might be able to give you the dirt on exactly which scale is missing on Smaug's belly. It might be one particular Congressman or watchdog.

Be careful, though. My guess is that if you research serious tax-oriented protest groups, you're going to run into a lot of Tea Party-related/-type outfits. They're the only ones these days who seem to be serious about changing anything to do with taxes.
posted by luke1249 at 12:30 PM on April 30, 2013

Best answer: No offense to Tanizaki, but failure to pay taxes is a weak form of protest in this day and age and is unlikely to garner attention. The computer that spits out the letter reminding you to pay your taxes + fines does not care that you are protesting anything. There is nothing to differentiate between you and some cheap crank who does not want to pay anything.

That said, here are some ways to effectively protest tax issues:
- Do the artists-taxpayers in question have appropriate legal representation and accountants on their side? One way to help is to connect the artist with some pro-bono services or contribute to legal defense or CPA guidance. Get the local accounting/legal community interested in the issue. (It's hard to give you specific advice without knowing the area you are in. The state bar association or association of CPAs could you point you in the right direction.) Meaningful tax issues typically get sorted out in the court system.
- It depends on the state, but you may gain traction with the executive and/or legislative bodies. Make phone calls, write letters, attend meetings and hearings, be polite, ask who else you can talk to. It's hard to say not knowing the state, but there's no reason not to work your way up to the governor's office. Is there a government accountability office for your state? Auditor general?
- Is there a tax watchdog specific to your state?
- Media attention. Not just arts media, but local news/business reporters.
- Prepare to be educated yourself. Tax stuff is not always obvious or logical, and lines have to be drawn somewhere.

It's not easy. I think the key is to get other people in authority interested and talking about it. Politicians are always crowing about taxes so it might be possible to form a bipartisan coalition on the one issue (whatever it is).
posted by stowaway at 12:30 PM on April 30, 2013

Best answer: Maybe look at what people have been doing to protest the Washington State "opportunity to dance" tax? They seem to have gotten pretty far- news media attention, a bill in the state Legislature.
posted by BungaDunga at 7:36 PM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the responses.
posted by Luke Skywalker at 10:06 PM on April 30, 2013

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