Most people would think it's bad enough embodying the "tax man" in the eyes of Minnesota residents, but Ward Einess also is Minnesota Department of Revenue commissioner at a time when revenues are way below what everyone would like them to be.
"It's just a really difficult time," Einess said Wednesday after meeting with his department's Brainerd area staff.
There's an uptick in sales tax revocations and the poor economy has resulted in below average state income tax revenue, he said.
The state's overall budget forecast is due at the end of November and although he didn't venture to guess specific numbers, he said the news isn't expected to be good.
"The drop in sales and income taxes are substantial," he said. "Everybody expects there to be another budget deficit in November."
This revenue drop comes on the heels of the governor's unallotment of between $2.8 million and $2.9 million and the reduction of $300 million in local government aid during a two-year period.
"Any low-hanging fruit has long since been cut," he said.
The revenue-only forecasts are more limited in their scope, but the tale they tell is a doleful one as well.
Einess said Minnesota's fiscal year 2009 ended $150 million below revenue forecasts and the July state revenues were $6 million below the forecast.
Looking for a silver lining, Einess said those numbers have been worse. Also, the state retained its AAA bond ratings with two of three bond houses.
"It shows maybe the worst is behind us," he said.
He said recent budget cuts have made his department leaner but there are actually more full-time equivalency employees than in recent history, with added emphasis on auditors and collectors who can retrieve revenue. The ratio of salary to tax revenue that is generated is about $5 or $6 in revenue to every one dollar in salary, Einess said. At one point the revenue personnel was about half compliance and half support, he said, but now it's about two-thirds compliance and one-third support.
His goal is to see that every taxpayer pays his or her fair share, "no more-no less."
Many of the people who aren't in compliance with tax laws are not willful violators, he said, they're just uneducated.
For example, he said, many people don't realize that Minnesota sales tax must be paid if an online purchase of more than $770 is made and the business has no physical presence in the state and state sales tax is not collected at the point of sale.
Einess was appointed commissioner of the Department of Revenue in 2007. His previous experience includes stints as deputy and acting commissioner of the Department of Employment and Economic Development; senior policy adviser to the governor; director of fiscal policy for the Minnesota Business Partnership; and senior legislative analyst for the Republican Senate House Caucus. He is a graduate of Gustavus Adolphus and Hamline Law School.
He said people who work with the Department of Revenue find its employees to be professional and not heavy-handed.
"Our No. 1 goal is to get people voluntarily into compliance," Einess said.
Seizures of property are done as a last resort and usually when the offender has been non-responsive.
Efficiencies are being stressed by the department, Einess said, evidenced by the state's ranking as having the highest percentage of e-mail filings of tax returns (more than 70 percent). Einess said the department's Web site is being retooled with the last-minute tax filer in mind. He said the department has an 800 phone number where callers can reach a live voice.
"The vast majority of taxpayers want to be compliant," he said.
MIKE O'ROURKE may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5860.
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