WASHINGTON -- We've all seen it painted on park benches: "Courtesy of Joseph P. Jones, County Superintendent of Parks." And on bus-stop benches and shelters: "Have a Nice Day, James J. Fogarty, Mayor."
Just gentle little reminders from your public officials that they are the dispensers of taxpayers' money in your behalf. In your gratitude, you might just remember them on the next Election Day. For years, these little messages have been standard operating procedure from local politicians.
Now comes a letter from your friendly Internal Revenue Service, for so long cast as the home of that heartless wretch, the income tax collector, who comes out of the ground every April 15 and, whether he sees his reflected shadow or not, gouges you unmercifully.
Some 91.6 million taxpayers will soon get the letter, which says:
"We are pleased to inform you that the United States Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed into law the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001, which provides for long-term tax relief for all Americans who pay income taxes."
Unless you have been like Punxsutawney Phil, the world's most famous groundhog who prefers living in the dark, you have already known for some time that President Bush has delivered on his 2000 campaign promise to bring you a tax cut. It's no news he persuaded Congress to approve the cut rather than devote the federal surplus to stuff you've said you'd prefer, like saving Social Security, cleaning up the environment and, if you're elderly, prescription drug benefits.
But the IRS letter is taking no chances. "You will be receiving a check," it tells you. And what's even better, it says, "You need to take no additional steps. You will not be required to report the amount as taxable income on your federal tax return." In other words, the letter is a bit of a spoil-sport. Now the check won't come as a surprise even to those citizens who have already figured out whether to buy a new Lexus or Jaguar with the $300 to $600 or just pay off the mortgage on their house.
The letter will inform taxpayers how much they can expect, which should help them decide well in advance what to do with the check when it does arrive. Rather than an IRS initiative, IRS spokesman Terry Lemons says, Congress' conference report on the tax bill called on the agency to send the letter first, then the check.
In a further demonstration of concern, the IRS will also send out a separate letter to folks who won't be getting a refund, for a total of about 120 million letters at a cost, Mr. Lemons estimates, of about $20 million. Paid for, of course, by you taxpayers. So you might say you're paying for the mailing yourself. The no-refund letter will explain why you're not getting one, and how maybe you might qualify next year, if you pay taxes this year.
Lest you might think the whole thing is just a way to remind you, like that sign on the park bench or bus-stop shelter, who it is that you can thank, the IRS spokesman says the letter is being sent in hopes of cutting down on the cacophony of phone calls the agency receives -- 100 million a year -- with questions about tax matters.
Democrats on Capitol Hill who got word of the massive mailing from unhappy career employees at the IRS are being uncouth enough to suggest it's all nothing but a costly Bush commercial. But Mr. Lemons says you can just imagine the confusion to taxpayers suddenly getting a government check they didn't expect. The assumption appears to be that they would run for the phone for an IRS explanation, rather than running to the nearest bank, and then the mall after that.
Meanwhile, the congressional Joint Committee on Taxation, a bipartisan body, has just reported that its analysis of the Bush $1.3 trillion tax cut bill will actually reduce federal revenue by $1.8 trillion over the next 10 years. And then there's all that additional spending that the Democrats are cooking up, not to mention Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's plans for a big boost in defense spending.
But none of this means your tax-refund check will bounce. That only happens when you're the one writing the checks, not Uncle Sam. And when he says the check is in the mail, you can believe him.
Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington Bureau.