Congress Is Killing That Sketchy Provision That Banned the Government from Offering Free Tax Filing Software

Illustration for article titled Congress Is Killing That Sketchy Provision That Banned the Government from Offering Free Tax Filing Software
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How about a bit of good news? It looks like the controversial provision in the Taxpayer First Act that would have prevented the Internal Revenue Service from directly competing with filing services offered through the Free File Program will no longer be part of the bill.

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The provision in question aimed to make permanent the government’s deal with tax filing services like H&R Block and TurboTax through the Free File Program, which should, though it evidently doesn’t, make filing through major tax services free and accessible to American taxpayers who make less than $66,000. But Politico reported Wednesday that a revised version of the Taxpayer First Act sans the provision would be introduced this week and passed as soon as next week. ProPublica reported Thursday that it confirmed the news with an unidentified House Republican staffer.

The news follows ongoing and widely circulated reporting by ProPublica on the Free File Program and the industry lobbying and campaign donations that tainted the bill’s other important goals for overhauling the IRS’s outdated services. As ProPublica reported at the time, H&R Block and TurboTax maker Intuit had their hands all over those efforts, donating millions to lobbying pertaining to the Free File Program.

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Why would tax companies seek to make the continuation of this program law? Well, for one, money. But a free IRS-offered product, perhaps even with pre-filled forms that would streamline the system considerably, would seriously threaten the tax-filing gravy train that has been immensely profitable for industry giants.

But there’s more. As part of its investigation into Intuit, ProPublica reported that at least one of the companies whose services were offered through this program, TurboTax, appeared to have purposefully hidden its free service from Google search results with code and advised its employees against referring customers to its free file product.

In a statement to Gizmodo in April, a spokesperson for Intuit said that with respect to the search code, the “intent in implementing our search practices was to make clear the distinction between these products by educating customers so they could find the product they were looking for.” Got that?

A spokesperson for Intuit did not immediately return a request for comment about this week’s reports.

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The IRS is currently investigating the Free File Program, saying in a statement in May that it would “take fast action to ensure the integrity of the program.” I am personally rooting for a refund for every qualifying American taxpayer who should have been able to file for free but was cheated out of exorbitant filing fees. Why not lean hard into this fleeting sentiment of corporate accountability, you know?

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DISCUSSION

I used the free Turbo Tax program for the first two years it was available. Then on the third year it was just impossible to find on their website. I’m sure it was buried in a menu somewhere but I could not for the life of me find it. So I swapped to H&R Block and it’s been...fine since then. They ask you a dozen different times in a dozen different ways to upgrade to the paid version but at least the free version is usually just there on the front page when you go to their website. As a non-married person with no kids and uncomplicated finances I’ve never needed more extensive tax services before. I’d consider whatever government rolls out assuming they can actually keep the website up.

On a side note, remember when you could file your taxes over the phone? I feel like that program was pretty short lived but in like 2003 I could just call in to a machine and type numbers into the phone. It was legit but of course that seems totally scammy now, but I was young and foolish and wanted my refund asap. “Oh my social and my routing number? No problem!”