Law-breaking lawmakers set a poor example

It was a chilly night, cold for April. By the time I made it to the post office, it was almost 10 p.m. Even that late, a long line of cars inched toward the drop box.

The mail processing facility on Hardeson Road was Everett’s only post office accepting income tax returns until midnight last April 15, assuring procrastinators an on-time postmark.

I was surprised to see so many people out that late, mailing envelopes to the Internal Revenue Service. Mine had a check in it, money I could have otherwise used for tuition, groceries or a fun getaway.

Now when I think of that line of cars, I’m struck by how hard most Americans work to abide by the law. Faced with complex tax laws and forms, lots of us add to the annual burden by paying to have tax returns professionally prepared.

We don’t want to cheat, even by accident. Taxpayers may grumble, but millions of honest Americans do pay.

“Most of my clients are so conscientious,” said Terah Regan, a certified public accountant in Marysville. “I’ve always been taught that this is a society of compliance. I get angry, and I think my clients are angry, about what people in responsibility have been doing.”

Regan has heard heated comments lately about the tax situations of several of President Barack Obama’s Cabinet choices. “My clients have never gotten away with saying, ‘I’m ignorant, I don’t have to pay taxes,’ ” she said.

On Tuesday, former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle withdrew his nomination as secretary of Health and Human Services. According to news reports, Daschle only recently paid $140,000 in back taxes and interest. The unpaid taxes were linked to Daschle not reporting as income the use of a Cadillac and driver provided by a private equity fund he has worked for since leaving the Senate in 2005. According to The Wall Street Journal, Daschle also didn’t report income from one month of a consulting contract.

Also this week, Obama’s choice for the new position of Chief Performance Officer pulled her name from consideration. In 2005, a $946.69 tax lien was imposed on Nancy Killefer’s home by the District of Columbia for unpaid taxes on household help, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner was confirmed by the Senate, but the process was clouded by his earlier failure to pay $34,000 in payroll taxes, according to The Los Angeles Times.

I don’t enjoy paying taxes, nor do I agree with everything my taxes fund. But there is value in much government spending — from the safety net for people in need to precious national parks. I’m not complaining about paying taxes.

What’s truly discouraging is to see that the very people who make our laws are so cavalier about adhering to laws themselves. There’s that, and then there are the privileged lives behind the recently revealed tax troubles.

Household help? A free Cadillac and driver?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not envious. I wouldn’t want a Cadillac and driver, although household help might be nice. Those luxuries show how different the lives of our nation’s leaders are from our own.

Reality, for most American families, is driving a car old enough to need some repairs. It’s finding the best child care we can, and struggling to afford it. It’s coming home from work to make dinner, do dishes, help with homework and get kids to bed.

It’s all that, and paying our tax bills, too.

One year long ago, when my husband and I were both working, we were stunned when our tax return was completed and we owed the IRS several thousand dollars. We took out a loan from a credit union so we could write the check on time.

Nikki Bristol, a tax preparer at Black Financial Services in Everett, isn’t surprised at that. She’s seen many clients shocked at the amount they owe after selling stocks or withdrawing money from retirement accounts.

“I have seen people sell collectibles, a stamp collection, coins or heirlooms. They want to get it paid,” she said. “I’ve seen people put off their mortgage payment for one month.”

Regan keeps a box of Kleenex in her office. “I’ve seen tears, people saying ‘I owe that much?’ Most of them either scrounge up the money or put it on a credit card,” she said.

One of Regan’s clients won $100 in a radio contest. “They wanted to report it,” she said.

Maybe back in that other Washington, they were amazed by the political fallout over taxes unpaid by the privileged.

Those leaders of ours should spend more time with folks who see a $100 windfall as a big deal — and reportable income.

Columnist Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460 or

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