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New Jersey offers ‘gift’ of tax amnesty. Is it worth it?

Tax amnesty is a quick way for states to earn cash. But does it also send a message that people can get away with not paying taxes on time?

New Jersey is offering amnesty for delinquent taxpayers. The state hopes to earn $200 million through the program.
New Jersey is offering amnesty for delinquent taxpayers. The state hopes to earn $200 million through the program.Read moreHandout (custom credit)

The pitch sounds like a holiday commercial: Sign up before Jan. 15 and we’ll waive some fees.

But this holiday-season deal won’t help you fulfill your shopping list or find the perfect present. It’s a special from the State of New Jersey, which is offering delinquent taxpayers a chance to pay overdue bills with penalties waived and interest cut in half.

Amnesty is a tool that states use, typically once every several years, to raise large sums of money quickly. New Jersey last offered it in 2009, and Pennsylvania, which reports a much larger sum of unpaid taxes, offered amnesty in 2017 and 2010.

It can be especially attractive for states like Pennsylvania and New Jersey that have faced standoffs over state budgets. But amnesty programs themselves cost money, and critics say they are an unreliable source of income that may even inadvertently encourage delinquency.

“It’s a one-time thing — it’s not going to bring in recurring revenue,” said John Buhl, a spokesperson and state tax specialist for the Tax Foundation. “Really, you’re just putting off your structural decisions that you need to make at some point.”

Gov. Murphy noted the drawbacks of tax amnesty this year, when he was at odds with the Legislature over the budget and criticized lawmakers for depending on one-shot deals.

The plan became part of the New Jersey budget anyway, and officials now hope to raise $200 million — a quarter of the $800 million owed to the state in taxes that are eligible for the program, including personal income tax and more than two dozen business taxes and fees. And there’s a penalty for those who don’t come forward to pay: An additional 5 percent amnesty penalty will be added to delinquent accounts.

The state sent letters to 750,000 tax-delinquent individuals and businesses, and has already received more than 28,000 calls and 2,500 emails from interested taxpayers.

“We began receiving payments on outstanding tax balances the very first day of the amnesty program — November 15,” Jennifer Sciortino, director of the communications for the state’s Office of the Treasurer, wrote in an email this week.

The cost of the program itself will cut into its profits; the legislation authorizing a tax amnesty program mandated that no more than $25 million go toward administering it. New Jersey has contracted with MarketSmith Inc., for advertising and marketing for an amount capped at $4.78 million, Sciortino said. The rest of the work will be done in-house.

New Jersey is one of five states offering tax amnesty this year, according to the Federation of Tax Administrators. Pennsylvania was one of three states that offered the program in 2017.

Last year’s Pennsylvania amnesty raised $142.9 million, but cost $12.5 million, resulting in a net gain of about $130 million -- or less than 4 percent of the total delinquent taxes owed.

Those 2017 Pennsylvania expenses included more than $500,000 in consultant and programming work, $3 million in wages and overtime, and miscellaneous expenses such as more than $2,000 for postage and $6,555 for furniture, according to a review by the Department of Revenue.

While the program netted $30 million more than anticipated, Pennsylvania’s Independent Fiscal Office declared it was one of several budget measures at the time that only served as a Band-Aid to the state’s money woes.

The program also does not appear to have had a lasting impact on tax delinquency. Pennsylvania had $3.47 billion in unpaid taxes eligible for amnesty in 2017, and Revenue Department spokesperson Jeffrey Johnson said this week that figure is “still an applicable estimate.”

That may be because amnesty programs may lose their impact over time. Buhl said taxpayers may realize that amnesty programs keep returning, so they can get away with not paying taxes when they are due.

“It’s what some economists and philosophers talk about as a moral hazard,” he said.

Pennsylvania’s 2010 program, as well as New Jersey’s in 2009, were some of the many state amnesty programs offered during and after the Great Recession when states were short on money, Buhl said. Philadelphia also offered its own amnesty in 2010.

Tax amnesty existed long before the recession, however — and so did debates over its worth. Some experts argue that instead of amnesty, states should spend money on hiring enough auditors to make sure tax bills are paid before they are long overdue, Buhl said.

“It’s hard to say for sure that they’re 100 percent good or bad, but they are a symptom of issues with your tax code,” he said. “The more complex your tax code is or the fewer resources your department of revenue has to make sure everyone is paying their fair share, the more likely it is that they’re going to have a gap.”