Internal Revenue Service deadlines are bad enough without having to worry about the status of your account, typos in your forms and whether the post office will get your payment in on time.
The notoriously bureaucratic IRS hopes to fix some of that with a new Web site that lets businesses and consumers file returns and pay their taxes online. It also gives taxpayers direct access to their accounts 24 hours per day and lets them set up automatic payments of their estimated quarterly taxes.
The free service, called the Electronic Federal Tax Payment System-OnLine (www.eftps.com), is open to all taxpayers, but is expected initially to be used largely by businesses, said IRS spokesman Tim Harms. The program was officially launched last Thursday, though it has been up and running since the beginning of the year as a pilot project.
Some 3.5 million businesses currently deal with the IRS electronically, but those communications require special software and dialing directly into the Department of the Treasury. The new site, Harms said, will make that communication easier.
The IRS program marks "the next stage in the advancement of e-government," said Ari Schwartz, associate director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington, D.C., cyberspace civil liberties advocacy group. "There are three stages weve looked at, which are publishing, interacting and transacting, and this fits into the transacting area."
The move shows that the IRS has pursued and stuck with an "aggressive plan" for e-government, and that "there is leadership in the IRS, which was in question when the plan was first introduced," Schwartz said.
He cautioned, however, that citizens and businesses will shrink from using the service if security or privacy problems emerge.
To enroll, taxpayers visit the Web site and fill out an online form. After enrollment, taxpayers receive a confirmation kit by mail with instructions for obtaining a password. In addition, a personal identification number will be mailed separately, for security purposes.
The new system "provides a convenient and secure method for paying taxes that is consistent with the way people do business," IRS Commissioner Charles Rossotti said in a statement. "The Internet is an increasingly integral part of todays business community. It makes sense to offer an online option for paying taxes."
James Snider, a fellow of left-leaning Washington, D.C., think tank New America Foundation, called the IRS online program "a win-win for the government — they have lower costs in processing forms — and its a win for citizens, who dont have to pay for uploading their tax forms. You can get a speedier automated, and perhaps more accurate and fairer, response from the government."