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Union leader 'surprised' IRS can't get funding

The head of a union representing IRS employees said Monday that she was surprised that the agency’s supporters hadn’t been able to stop a string of budget cuts coming from Capitol Hill.

Colleen Kelley, the president of the National Treasury Employees Union, told reporters that her group had been “spoonfeeding” lawmakers information about what years of funding reductions meant for the agency’s ability to both collect revenue for the government and serve taxpayers.

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Kelley added that IRS officials and supporters have been making their case for years, before sequestration cuts went into effect and Republicans became increasingly angry over the agency’s improper scrutiny of Tea Party groups. Now, Kelley argued, the agency’s ability to serve taxpayers is increasingly eroding each year.

“Congress did not listen,” said Kelley, noting the “rhetoric of some coming out of Congress” about the Tea Party controversy.

“But I think that everyone who should have been at the IRS was yelling loud enough and providing facts,” added Kelley, who will retire later this year after 16 years as NTEU president. “I’m surprised we haven’t turned the corner.”

John Koskinen, the IRS commissioner, and other IRS backers like Kelley have for months been criticizing the budget cuts as shortsighted. IRS funding will top out at $10.9 billion in 2015 — more than $1 billion less than in 2010, and equivalent to the funding level in 1998 when accounting for inflation.

The funding reductions, IRS officials say, have forced the IRS to leave around three in five phone calls to the agency unanswered, and have hurt their ability to fight refund fraud.

Even those taxpayers that get through on the phone can only expect to have basic tax law questions answered. Once the filing season ends, the IRS says it won’t be able to answer those basic questions, either.

On Monday, Kelley tried to put a human face on the IRS’s budget reductions, for both employees and taxpayers. She noted that the IRS had shed more than 18,000 employees since 2011, or roughly one in six of the roughly 108,000 employees it had that year.

Those reductions hit states like Montana, Hawaii, Wyoming, Nebraska and Mississippi especially hard, with each seeing at least a 30 percent decline in IRS staffing.

Kelley added that taxpayers themselves are getting so frustrated by the lack of service that the police have had to be called to bring calm to IRS offices around the country. She also recounted reports from union members of taxpayers lining up at 4 a.m. outside Dallas, and 6 a.m. in Fort Myers, Fla., to wait in line for hours to get help.  

Republicans on Capitol Hill have shown no signs that they’re interested in giving the IRS a funding bump. And Koskinen himself, while complaining about the “abysmal” customer service his agency is currently offering, has said that the current filing season is going about as well as could be expected, given the IRS’s new responsibilities for ObamaCare.

Kelley, who repeatedly praised Koskinen’s performance on Monday, chalked the commissioner’s comments up as a “vote of confidence” for workers struggling with a lack of resources.

But she also made it clear that reversing the funding declines was the only way to improve the agency’s performance. “Every year it gets worse,” she said.