Bah, humbug. With Christmas such a recent memory that toys are still unassembled and puppies yet to be named, state and federal tax officials assembled yesterday to kick off the tax season.
Beginning next week, 2 million residents of Maryland should receive their annual New Year's greeting from the government: 1993 tax forms.
Officials said tax forms and rules are mostly the same as last year's and urged consumers to file their returns electronically.
"This year's forms are not significantly different than last year's," Paul Harrington, district director for the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, said yesterday at a news conference.
And neither, for most middle-income people, are the tax bills. The changes pushed through in President Clinton's budget earlier this year raise the top rate for only about 2 percent of taxpayers, Mr. Harrington said.
But he and state Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein were inviting the attention yesterday anyway, publicizing the most common mistakes people make on their tax returns in hopes that people will be more careful, saving the government the time it takes to fix the mistakes and allowing taxpayers to get their refunds sooner.
The biggest change at the state level is that three counties have raised their local income tax, or "piggyback tax," which is collected along with the state's income tax. Allegany and Montgomery counties have raised their piggyback tax to 60 percent of a taxpayer's state tax tab, while Worcester County's rate is now 30 percent.
Mr. Goldstein said that about one in five Maryland taxpayers will be affected by that change.
"Changes in the local tax rate generated the [most common] single error last year," Mr. Goldstein said, as taxpayers in Montgomery, Baltimore and Prince George's counties failed to notice 1992 changes and filed returns claiming to owe only the 1991 local tax rate. About 3 percent of Marylanders used the wrong local tax rate on their returns in 1993.
"Remember, any error will slow down the processing of your check," Mr. Goldstein said.
One thing that can speed up processing is electronic filing, Mr. Harrington said. The process allows a computer to catch mathematical errors before filing, wiping out a major source of errors on federal tax forms and saving the IRS the time needed to check and correct taxpayers' math. That also speeds the refunds that an estimated 70 percent of taxpayers will get this year, he said.
Some other significant changes:
* Lower-income taxpayers will get a break from the expansion of the earned income tax credit. IRS spokesman Sam Serio said the EIC will be available to families with incomes of up to $23,050, up from $22,370 for a family with at least one child. The maximum EIC will rise to $2,364 from $2,211 last year.
* For taxpayers who do not itemize their deductions, the standard deduction has been raised to $3,700 for a single taxpayer, up from $3,600 last year. The deduction for heads of households is $5,450, up from $5,250.
The standard deduction for a married couple filing jointly has been raised to $6,200 from $6,000, while the deduction for a married couple filing separately now is $3,100, up from $3,000 last year.
* The presidential campaign check-off has been increased to $3 per taxpayer from $1. As before, directing tax money to the federal program that helps fund presidential campaigns does not increase a taxpayer's liability or reduce the size of a refund due.
TAX INFORMATION NUMBERS
* For questions about federal tax forms, call: 1-800-TAX-FORM, or 1-800-829-3676.
* For federal tax information, call 962-2590 in Baltimore. Outside the Baltimore area, call 1-800-TAX-1040, or 1-800-829-1040.
* For questions about state taxes, call 1-800-MD-TAXES, or 1-800-638-2937.