VITA updates create new opportunities for August advocacy

(A version of this commentary also appears on WorkForward, the blog of the National Community Tax Coalition.)

VITA is in season in Washington, D.C. with recent news emerging from the U.S. House, Senate, and the IRS. Appropriations bills for the next fiscal year have now been put forward by committees in both houses with new challenges and opportunities for the VITA grant program. And the VITA Act has now been reintroduced in the Senate as well as the House. Add to this the latest news on VITA quality from the IRS, and there’s an impressive backdrop of news to inform your August recess in-district Congressional meetings.

On the appropriations front, two competing visions for Fiscal Year 2014 IRS funding – including the VITA grant – have been passed out of the House and Senate Appropriations Subcommittees on Financial Services and General Government. The House version provides a dramatically reduced IRS budget but protects the VITA grant with another year of funding at the current $12 million level, and even avoids “sequester” budget cuts for the grant in the coming year. Unfortunately, these substantial budget cuts do not spare many other areas in the Taxpayer Services sector – cuts that would undoubtedly place additional pressure on VITA operations as programs are asked to do more with less in the face of these and past scale backs. In addition, even in this scenario, the VITA grant would be directly subject to sequester cuts for several years following FY14.

The appropriations news from the Senate is a bit rosier: The funding for the VITA grant program in the Senate version increases the appropriation to $18 million – the amount requested earlier this year in the President’s budget proposal. However, as with the House version, other challenges remain.

Overall, the two chambers of Congress remain far apart in settling-on a final budget for FY14, and the ultimate details could change considerably from these two plans. And even if the VITA grant avoids sequestration cuts next year, it would still remain directly subject to such reductions in the following fiscal years. However, these initial, Congressional demonstrations of support reflect the power of our collective advocacy efforts.

The most positive news on the VITA front comes from the Senate, where VITA champion Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio has reintroduced the VITA Act (S. 1368) with original cosponsors Sens. Tom Udall of New Mexico, John Rockefeller of West Virginia, and Robert Menendez of New Jersey on board. This is the companion bill to the House version (H.R. 341) introduced by Reps. Mike Honda of California and Danny Davis of Illinois earlier this year. As with previous versions of the Act, the VITA Act requests an annual authorization of $30 million for each of five years for the VITA grant program – an amount that better-reflects the ongoing demand for federal funding from VITA programs.

And just in time to boost your VITA-advocacy efforts during the August Congressional recess, the IRS has released its latest results on VITA quality from its annual Quality Statistical Sample report. The results once again reveal the high quality of services provided by programs filing free, volunteer-prepared returns, which had an overall accuracy rating of 91 percent for the 2013 tax-filing season.

While the accuracy rate was down 1 percentage point from the previous year’s figure, it remained about 12 points higher than numbers posted as recently as 2009. IRS officials attributed the slight drop primarily to occasional errors in the intake/interview and quality-review processes.

This flurry of news highlights the challenges ahead of us and underscores the need to request a meeting with your members of Congress while they are in districts. We need to convey that the need for high-quality, well-funded VITA services is front and center. NCTC is here to help with your advocacy efforts, and we’ll continue to stay on top of these and other issues of importance as they arise.