Intuit's secret campaign to block free tax filing

Intuit has launched a fake grassroots campaign to beat a proposal that would allow some taxpayers to file at no cost

Intuit expects to pull in around $4.5 billion in revenue this fiscal year, an increase of better than 6 percent, and it predicts that its earnings per share will jump by at least 10 percent. To preserve that income, Intuit is secretly fighting a proposed program that would allow the IRS to calculate taxes for people who request it -- because that would reduce the income Intuit earns from its tax software and tax-fiing service.

Intuit is so concerned that it has spent $11.5 million lobbying against it, working with a right-wing antitax crusader to create a fake grassroots movement to convince politicians that the public opposes free tax filing, as reported by Pro Publica and NPR.

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What's keeping Intuit CEO Brad Smith up at night is "return-free filing," a voluntary alternative to hiring a tax preparer or using commercial tax software. Note the word "voluntary." No one would be forced to use the program, and it's based on information from banks and employers that the government already receives. Essentially, if you're the kind of person who has a simple return, you could ask the IRS to do your tax return for you and send you the bill.

It's likely that those who would opt in are lower-income and elderly tax payers who either can't afford to pay a tax preparer or aren't tech-savvy enough to use the tax-preparation software that is the core of Intuit's business.

Even so, Intuit calls the program "anti-consumer" and claims it would result in higher tax payments for those who use it.

Intuit plays the cynical AstroTurf game
But if Intuit really believes that, why is it not advocating against the program publicly? Instead, it's playing the Washington "AstroTurf" game and jumping into bed with Grover Norquist, who hates the federal government so much he wants to shrink it until "it's small enough to drown in the bathtub."

AstroTurfing -- named after the fake grass you used to see at ballparks -- is a term for setting up a group that purports to be made of regular folks, the grassroots, but is really a front for an interest group. Here, according to Pro Publica, is how Intuit has been AstroTurfing the "return-free filing" issue:

Over the last year, a rabbi, a state NAACP official, a small-town mayor, and other community leaders wrote op-eds and letters to Congress with remarkably similar language opposing return-free filing.

They warned that return-free filing would be a conflict of interest for the IRS and would especially hurt low-income people, who wouldn't have the resources to fight inaccurate returns. Rabbi Elliot Dorff wrote in a Jewish Journal that he "shudders at the impact this program will have on the most vulnerable people in American society."

"It's alarming and offensive" that the IRS would target "the most vulnerable Americans," two other letters said. The program, which was supported by both Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama, is a government "experiment" that would mean higher taxes for the poor, two op-eds argued.

Rabbi Dorff says he was approached by a former student, Emily Pflaster, who sent him details and asked him to write an op-ed alerting the Jewish community to the threat. What Pflaster did not tell him is that she works for a PR and lobbying firm with connections to Intuit and the Computer & Comunications Industry Association, which includes Intuit.

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