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Five questions for ... Robin McKinney

Tax CreditsElectionsTechnology IndustryInternal Revenue ServiceFiscal Cliff (2013)

This is the busiest time of year for Robin McKinney.

McKinney is the director and co-founder of the Maryland Creating Assets, Savings and Hope (CASH) Campaign, which provides free tax preparation for low- to moderate-income households in the state. She also lobbies state lawmakers to improve the finances of Maryland consumers during the legislative session.

McKinney was an early advocate for state regulation of tax preparers who are paid to fill out people's returns. For years, anyone in Maryland could set up a business to fill out returns, which is why Marylanders could find tax preparation services springing up at gas stations and psychics' shops during tax season. The state now regulates tax preparers.

McKinney also successfully pushed for changes in Maryland law that would allow banks and credit unions to offer cash prizes to savers. Such incentives have worked to encourage savings at Michigan and Nebraska credit unions, McKinney says.

With lawmakers now meeting in Annapolis, McKinney is backing legislation that would prevent forgiven student loan debt from being taxed by the state.

How are the "fiscal cliff" and last-minute tax law changes affecting Maryland CASH Campaign's tax preparation this year?

2013 will be a tax season to remember. The last-minute changes to tax laws meant that the IRS and software companies have to work feverishly to input all of the new information. The IRS will not be accepting returns until Jan. 30, so our local, free tax preparation partners are weighing whether or not to open before that. The IRS also made significant changes to how we structure our programs, so we are also trying to resolve those issues. Our local partners also receive significant federal funding, so they were on edge during the fiscal cliff negotiations to see if they would even be able to open this year.

What's a typical day at Maryland CASH Campaign during tax season?

Because the "CASH" in the nonprofit Maryland CASH Campaign stands for "Creating Assets, Savings and Hope," we're always working to do just that. I am constantly trying to balance my time between tax season and the legislative session. A typical day could include a press event highlighting the great work of our local partners, proofing marketing materials or negotiating media buys, fielding calls from our sites about tax law or software issues, and meeting with legislators to discuss our policy priorities.

You have been a longtime proponent of raising standards for tax preparers. Last year, Maryland started registering preparers and requiring continuing education to remain registered. Has this had an impact yet, or what problems do you still see with tax preparers?

I am so proud of the work that we have done to raise the standards for tax preparers. There have been about 3,700 preparers registered, and the state board is very committed to following up on complaints. Complaints are rolling in, so that means the public is also aware that their tax preparer needs credentials. We still see abuses with refund products — refund anticipation loans and checks that cost taxpayers a lot of money and can be avoided by using direct deposit to a bank account. We also see a lot of issues around tax returns for self-employed individuals — incorrect deductions and inaccurate income.

What should consumers do to make sure they have a trustworthy tax preparer?

Make sure that they are registered through the Maryland Individual Tax Preparers Board or that they are an enrolled agent, CPA or attorney. You can often check to see if that person is in good standing. It is always good to get referrals from friends and family, but you should always ask questions about their experience and education. Always ask a tax preparer to review your return with you, so that you can understand all of the details. Don't be afraid to ask questions.

Your parents were community activists, and you grew up in a town (Arden, Del.) based on the 19th-century economic philosophy of Henry George, who believed land belongs to humanity and wrote about the growing gap between rich and poor. How have these influences affected your work?

I am deeply passionate about the power of people working together in a community. There was never a problem we couldn't figure out or overcome if we worked together. I also learned that diversity of all kinds — racial, political, economic — makes a community stronger. Understanding the power and politics of the wealth gap has made me fiercely dedicated to giving a voice to the communities I care about and to fight for equal access to the tools and products that will help everyone thrive.

Robin McKinney

Title: Director and co-founder of Maryland CASH Campaign

Age: 35

Born: Arden, Del.

Residence: Columbia

Family: Married to Drew Herman since 2007

Previous job: Director, Maryland Asset Building Initiative

Education: Bachelor's degree in social work from Elizabethtown College; master's degree in social work from University of Maryland, Baltimore

Interests: Anything related to food — eating, cooking, reading cookbooks; shopping; traveling; spending time with friends and family

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