On one recent morning, a staffer in an obscure office of the Ohio
Department of Taxation received more than 100 frantic phone calls by
Most of the callers had the same plea: I've got some money I want
to give you. Please take it. Please take it today.
The calls were coming in on the last day of a special "amnesty"
program offered by the state as a way to collect on overdue taxes.
Ohio was offering tax dodgers, both individuals and businesses, a
"one-time" chance to pay their overdue levies - and avoid having to
pay back interest, or face criminal penalties in the process. The
result: The state took in some $24 million in one month.
From Michigan to Nevada, a number of states are resorting to
amnesty programs in an effort to wring every last 50-cent piece out
of delinquent taxpayers - and add much-needed revenue to state
The low monetary cost of such programs makes them irresistible to
some states (Ohio's total advertising and administrative budget for
its amnesty program was only $500,000). Politically, amnesty is a
much more palatable revenue quick fix than either raising taxes or
cutting programs, although forgiving tax evasion can sometimes leave
lawmakers open to the charge of being soft on "crime." Proponents,
however, argue it's a win-win for taxpayers and revenue-hungry
states who want to clear their consciences and their books,
"Most taxpayers who are delinquent are not dishonest people, more
likely they didn't understand the law because it's complicated or
they got themselves in some financial difficulties and therefore
skipped a payment or whatever," says Thomas Zaino, Ohio's tax
commissioner. "It gives those folks a chance to come forward and get
this off their chests and sleep a little better at night."
In addition to Ohio, Maryland, and Louisiana offered such
programs last fall and New Hampshire is in the middle of a 10-week
amnesty effort. Arizona, too, will soon take its second trip down
amnesty lane this year - it was the first to initiate such programs
Those who question the effectiveness of the laws are especially
irked by a recurring theme: These "once-in-a-lifetime programs" are
being repeated every few years in some cases. While this was Ohio's
first ever amnesty program - and, officials insist, its last -
Louisiana recently concluded its fourth amnesty program in 16 years. …