WASHINGTON – When a presidential commission asked taxpayers for their thoughts about tax laws, they got a stream of replies that could be summed up by one from Harry Brown of Port Huron, Mich. "There has got to be a better way than this," Brown wrote.
The hundreds of public comments submitted to the President's Advisory Panel on Federal Tax Reform (search), a commission studying ways to make tax laws fairer and simpler, show taxpayers in distress.
Tax laws and forms cannot be deciphered, they said. Paperwork takes too much time. Tax professionals cost too much. No one should have to be a tax attorney or an accountant to meet the basic responsibilities of citizenship. And many suspect lobbyists wrote a lot of the tax laws.
"I don't understand the system well enough to evaluate whether it is fair or not," wrote Joshua Nathaniel Pritikin of Santa Barbara, Calif. "A fair tax system should be so obviously fair that I should be able to judge its fairness without getting a college degree in economics."
Most upsetting to many taxpayers who took the time to write the commission is the seemingly arbitrary nature of tax breaks (search). They sound good until you look at the fine print. Then you see that the rules disqualify many taxpayers, or that the benefit is not nearly as helpful as it looks.
Gary H. Burger of Tempe, Ariz., told the panel that so many things in the tax laws are unfair, it's hard to know where to start.
"Try the child tax credit," he wrote. "It ends at age 16. Do your 17- and 18-year-olds cost you less, or more?"
Tax breaks for married couples discriminate against single taxpayers who pay more and get fewer benefits, wrote Deidre East.
"As a single person, I am sick and tired of subsidizing married people and children that are not mine," East wrote. "Funding schools through my taxes when I don't have children still benefits me as a citizen of a community. However, funding a child tax credit (search) — middle class welfare — is preposterous!"
Peter Dobush, who is divorced, told the panel he supports his children like any other father but gets little help with those expenses because he must file as a "single" taxpayer.
"Examples are clothes, school tuition, maintaining a separate place for the children such as extra bedrooms in my apartment, sporting activity fees, clothes, food, and all the normal expenses associated with raising a family," he wrote. "Buy a video game lately?"
A married couple from Jacksonville, Fla., wrote to complain that they make too much money to qualify for certain family tax benefits, even though "we really live pretty much check to check like the rest of America."
"I ask that the tax reform panel take a serious look at the disparity in treatment between the truly wealthy and those who someone decided have an income that they consider to be 'wealth,'" they wrote.
But the poor often miss out on tax help, too, said Zach Bacon of Minneapolis.
"A rich man can write off his $10,000 donation as a tax write off, but a poor man's $10 in the offering plate doesn't add up to enough to allow a tax deduction," he said. "The tax code does not reward the average American's charitable giving."
Bacon gave $1,500 to his church last year but couldn't claim a deduction because he didn't itemize deductions.
Carlen L. Kreutzer of Stafford, Va., wrote to criticize a law that lets taxpayers deduct medical expenses, but only if they total more than 7.5 percent of the taxpayer's income.
"Please try to reduce or eliminate the percentage reduction completely," she wrote. "Medical expenses are not a choice, but a necessity."
The tax laws that help workers save for their retirement come with rules that can work against taxpayers, wrote Charles L. Ruffner. He complained about the mandatory withdrawals that retirees must take from some accounts beginning at age 70 1/2.
"This pace is too rapid to permit personal decisions geared to future inflation concerns and needs," he said.
Retiree David A. Roe of Reston, Va., said he and his wife must limit withdrawals from their retirement savings so they don't trigger the alternative minimum tax, designed to prevent wealthy individuals from escaping taxation but encroaching closer to the middle class.
Other retirees wrote to criticize laws that subject some Social Security (search) benefits to taxation.
The panel also got a flood of e-mail from gay couples who say tax benefits for married couples discriminate against the children and families of same-sex couples who can't marry.
The disparity stretches to things like job perks, said Lou Kravitz, a retired United Airlines employee in Hercules, Calif., who pays tax on the free tickets that other employees get tax-free for their spouses, parents and children.
Lest the panel think that tax professionals might defend these much maligned tax laws, a certified public accountant with an advanced degree in taxation and 40 years of experience wrote to recommend a complete tax overhaul.
"While I have earned a nice living from this profession, I have to admit that it is one of the most wasteful uses of citizens' time and money in existence today in this country," wrote Jeff Franzen.
"Yes, it will put millions of tax professionals out of business eventually. However, we are a smart lot and will figure out something more valuable to the economy to make a living."
The tax commission plans to make its recommendations for improving the system this summer.