When former Sandy Springs City Council and Charter Commission member Doug MacGinnitie took office as Georgia's newest state revenue commissioner just after the January 2011 snowstorm that basically shut down the city, he almost immediately encountered a problem.
News trucks were in the driveway of the MacGinnitie household and his young son didn't know what to do. They were there because the Department of Revenue made errors on about 33,000 tax refunds and had further miscommunication with banks, so by the time the department tried to get the money back, many people had already spent it.
The next day, MacGinnitie found himself swarmed by all the news anchors that, as an Atlanta native, he was used to watching on TV, except now they were rapid-firing questions at him “like a White House press scrum,” he said to a meeting of Georgia Association of Business Brokers members and guests. It was on the top of every news broadcast and above the fold on the front page of the Atlanta-Journal Constitution.
But soon, the news cycle kept on turning and MacGinnitie found himself ousted from the front page in favor of a potbellied pig that got loose and started running around I-75 in Cobb County.
“I learned a couple of things from my first, second weeks' experience in the job. One is the press is going to cover what the press is going to cover and then they'll move on,” he said. “The other is that...we now keep a pen of potbellied pigs in the basement of the Department of Revenue,” he joked.
All joking aside, MacGinnitie explained what the Department of Revenue does. Their influence is wide-reaching: they collect about $20 billion a year in taxes from about 4.5 million Georgia taxpayers, but they also handle the laws related to alcohol, tobacco and coin-operated machines like toy crane machines and Waffle House jukeboxes. Back in the olden days, agents in that area would go bust illegal alcohol distilleries, but MacGinnitie said that isn't done as much anymore.
Agents in that area also carry badges and guns, which were given to MacGinnitie not long after his first day on the job. He said he was initially baffled at the presentation of these two items.
The department helps local governments with property tax issues, is a repository for unclaimed properties totaling more than $100 million a year in value and oversees the Georgia Lottery. So, if you win the Powerball drawing tomorrow, you'll need to stop by MacGinnitie's office.
“You have to come see us first before you get your money,” he said. “It's how the tax man works.”
MacGinnitie said the department is trying to stop fraudulent tax filings using a variety of techniques. They've stopped about 56,000 fraudulent filings and about 40,000 fraudulent returns, including once when someone filed federal and state returns in the name of his wife Missy.
Of course, the department collected much less in taxes during the worst of the Great Recession, though MacGinnitie noted that the state economy is starting to grow again, slowly but steadily. He hopes the holiday season will help jump-start flattened sales tax revenues.
The department also handles nearly everything related to motor vehicles in Georgia, except obtaining driver's licenses. Because of this, MacGinnitie explained the upcoming changes to taxing car sales.
Starting March 1, new or used vehicles purchased through a car dealership or what he termed casual transactions will incur one title transfer tax of about six or seven percent. There will be no more annual ad valorem taxes, just the fee for the new year sticker to place on license plates. Note that cars purchased before this date will still have ad valorem taxes.
However, he is worried that people don't know about the change and might be very confused or irritated, especially when they discover they need to pay the title transfer tax for their car separately.
More tax reform on the way is about online retailers like Amazon charging Georgia sales tax regardless of if they have a brick-and-mortar presence in the state. MacGinnitie isn't sure how that will play out, either. He thinks that there could even be a challenge to this requirement's constitutionality.
These changes to taxation could make things hectic at the Department of Revenue soon.
Here are some more tips for easily paying your taxes and keeping your cool during the upcoming tax season:
- The department loves when people use e-file because it makes processing the data easier. MacGinnitie described the department as a huge data processor in and of itself.
- Things get busy around January when people begin to file their taxes and in the fall for people who got filing extensions. This may mean longer hold times if you need to call someone at the department for help, though he said the department is committed to cutting those and improving customer service overall.
- Make sure to keep a copy of all the documents you submit just in case there's a problem.