Friday, January 21, 2011


Today we meet Professor Mary O’Keeffe. Mary is a public policy economist who is “excited” about teaching Income Tax Policy and Practice at Union College in Schenectady, New York. She is also excited about coordinating the college’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program.

Mary writes the blog BED BUFFALOES IN YOUR TAX CODE. If you want to know what are bed buffaloes and how did they get in our tax code click here. She has written a couple of great posts about my “eccentricities” as a tax preparer (click here and here).

The Professor has some great connections to the IRS. National Taxpayer Advocate, Nina Olson, was one of the 200 members of her Bryn Mawr graduating class, and David R Williams, IRS Director of Electronic Tax Administration and Refundable Credits and current preparer regulation “czar”, was one of her students. David has told me, “and I do owe it all to Mary. :-)”.

(1) How did you become interested/involved in preparing tax returns or teaching taxes?

When I was a little kid, I remember being fascinated by the income tax instruction booklets that came through the mail slot at our house each year right after Christmas. I lived in Washington, DC and was intrigued--and disturbed--by the convoluted way in which we financed our government. I had a high school boyfriend whose father said he claimed their family dog as a dependent on his tax return. (I thought he was joking, but later when he was arrested for embezzlement at the firm where he worked, I'm not so sure!) Later, as a graduate student in economics at Harvard, I got to study public finance with Prof. Marty Feldstein, a brilliant scholar--even if I don't always agree with him--who gave me analytic tools that helped me think more clearly about our tax system.

(2) How were you educated/trained in preparing tax returns?

Until about six years ago, the only tax returns I prepared were for my immediate family. My dad was a librarian, and I'm a big believer in reading and self-education from credible sources, so early on I supplemented the IRS instruction booklets with a really excellent book, The Tax Guide for College Teachers, which specializes in tax topics relevant to professors. (Sadly, there have been no annual editions of that book in recent years--probably a casualty of the fact that people rely more on software and the Internet these days.)

When I took over the VITA program at Union College, I realized that there was a lot I didn't know about the aspects of the tax system relevant to low-income working families, so I was very grateful for the excellent training and support provided by the award-winning IRS employees at the Albany Stakeholder, Partnership, Education, and Communication Office (SPEC). The wonderful folks in that office are always willing to go the extra mile to help me get the answers to any questions that come up at our VITA site. The TaxProf blog and its associated email list that Dean Paul Caron runs for tax professors across the country have also been a great resource.

(3) When and why did you decide to write a blog on tax issues?

I started my blog in November 2008. My students at Union College are on a trimester system, which means they are off-campus from the third week of November until right after New Year's. Some of them are all over the world during that time--we have mini-terms in New Zealand and Egypt. Others spend the time in their hometowns, working part-time jobs or internships. I expect them to "hit the ground running" and return to campus ready to take their IRS VITA certification exams on the first day of class, so my blog is one way to communicate with them.

(4) How has blogging helped your business?

Writing is an enjoyable way to clarify my own thinking and to reflect on tax issues.

(5) What do you consider the “best tax advice” you can give anyone?

No matter who or what helps you with your tax returns--whether it's a professional, a volunteer, tax software, advice from a tax blogger, etc.--the person ultimately responsible for the accuracy of the tax return is YOU, the taxpayer. Take the time to understand the basic logic of your tax return line by line BEFORE you sign it and file it. Double-check everything. Don't assume that your preparer is doing everything right. Error rates are high, even on professional prepared tax returns. If there is something on your return that you don't understand, "kick the tires" and get your questions answered before it goes into the system.

(6) Do you think the regulation of tax return preparers is a good thing?

Yes, I do. It's not a panacea, but anything that weeds out some of the worst of a bad lot is a good thing. Especially in this day and age of electronic filing, a tax preparer has the capability to move millions of dollars of taxpayer money from the US Treasury into bank accounts of his designation.

(7) Do you think CPAs and attorneys should be exempt from testing and required CPEs in taxation?

I think the professional societies for CPAs and attorney ought to step up to the plate and take the initiative to develop certification tests and CPE requirements that are appropriate for their members who specialize in taxation. Those tests and requirements for CPAs and attorneys ought to go above and well beyond what the IRS contemplates for unenrolled preparers.

(8) What is your favorite Broadway musical – and why?

Musicals don't have to be on Broadway to be great fun. There is wonderful musical called LES PHYS about Prof. Howard Georgi's legendary Physics 16 class at Harvard. I am also very partial to the excellent original musicals written and composed by Kit Goldstein, a very talented Union College graduate. Like my own two daughters, Kit grew up homeschooled in Schenectady County.

Mary’s great advice echoes that given by Trish McIntire last Friday, and she puts it excellently – “the person ultimately responsible for the accuracy of the tax return is YOU, the taxpayer”.

I doubt that the AICPA will do anything along the lines of what Mary has recommended. The Institute does not believe that there is a need for a “specialization” in tax for CPAs because, as they told a CPA who asked about it a while back, it believes the public thinks that CPAs already “own” tax preparation. Let us hope the new tax preparer regulation regime headed by Mary’s former student will correct this public misconception.

I agree with Mary that great musicals come from all types of sources, and many do not make it to the Great White Way. But I am disappointed that she did not mention a “traditional” favorite.
Next Friday the current Tax Blogosphere Buddies series ends with the Joe Kristan of THE ROTH AND COMPANY TAX UPDATE BLOG, who disagrees with the rest of us on the new tax preparer regulation regime. Some might say I have saved the best for last.
Not to worry - the series will return after my annual tax filing season hiatus.

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