Last Thursday, cellphone carrier Verizon Wireless announced a new $2 fee for one-time payments made online or over the phone. On Friday, the Federal Communications Commission immediately announced they were “concerned about Verizon’s actions” and planned to look into the matter. At the same time, over 158,000 visitors signed an online petition demanding that Verizon drop the fee. In fact, the website hosting the petition expressed shock that “while you are instituting this new fee, Verizon paid zero federal income tax from 2008-2010, and actually got almost a billion dollars in rebates from taxpayers.” Verizon immediately beat a hasty retreat and dropped the proposed fee.
Verizon is hardly the only corporate giant to float new fees, only to see them immediately fall back to earth. Back in September, Bank of America announced plans to charge a $5 monthly fee for customers making debit card purchases — then, after howls of customer protest, backed off just five weeks later. Other banks, which had tested similar debit card fees, killed their fees too in the wake of the protests.
There’s a pattern developing here. In today’s struggling economy, companies can’t impose the broad-based price hikes they really want. So they settle for nickel-and-diming us with junk fees. Unfortunately for them, consumers are pushing back — and at least with Verizon and the banks, the customers are winning.
There’s a similar pattern at work in today’s Washington. Candidates can talk ’till they’re blue in the face about bold sweeping change, like Rick Perry’s 20% flat tax and Herman Cain’s attention-grabbing “9-9-9” plan. (If you close your eyes right now, I bet you can still hear Cain saying “9-9-9” in your head.) But in today’s hyper-partisan Congress, the actual legislators in charge of implementing all those bright ideas can’t find the consensus to name a Post Office, let alone remake the tax code in any meaningful way. So they settle for nickel-and-diming the system — extending the payroll tax holiday for a miserly 60 days instead of a full year, and paying for it by levying fees on mortgages sold to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac rather than by raising taxes on million-dollar earners.
Even when legislators extend new breaks, they tend to be for small amounts, like the $800 “Making Work Pay” credit or $1,500 for home energy improvements. New tax breaks also tend to be short-lived: the 2009 deduction for sales tax on new cars lasted 10½ months, and the much-ballyhooed “Cash for Clunkers” program lasted just 56 days.
The problem, of course, is that Washington’s version of nickel-and-diming us adds up fast. A couple of bucks for online bill payments here and $5 for monthly debit-card usage there? Maybe it cuts into your Starbucks budget. But closing tax breaks hurts. As former Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen famously said, “A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon you’re talking real money.” And IRS “customers” can’t threaten to take their “business” somewhere else like customers at the bank.
2012 is an election year, of course, which means we can expect even less in the way of substantive action — at least for the next 10 months. But that may all change after November 6, as the Bush tax cuts expire after December 31. If the upcoming election leaves Washington as divided as it is now, we can expect a repeat of last summer’s debt-ceiling battle. Our job is to keep on top of all the news to safeguard your nickels and dimes, regardless of what happens in November. And that means planning. Remember, being proactive, now, is the key to keeping your tax bill as low as possible in 2012 and beyond. So, if one of your New Year’s resolutions is to get out in front of the tax nickel-and-dimers, give us a call!