The Tax Man and the "Electric Amish"

We've talked before about how the internet is changing so much of how we live our lives. The internet is changing how we shop, how we book travel, and even how some of us find romance.

It's no surprise, then, that the internet is changing how we file and pay our taxes. Just 10 years ago, online filing was a novelty. Now it's become the norm. Last year, two out of three Americans e-filed their income tax returns. Those who also opted for electronically deposited refunds saved the government mailing costs, saved themselves a trip to the bank, and even got their refunds a week faster than waiting for paper checks.

State and local governments are getting into the e-filing act, too. In fact, some state and local governments are mandating e-filing for certain returns. For example, New York has made e-filing mandatory for sales tax returns. They also want taxpayers' phone numbers and Social Security numbers. That's not really too much to ask, is it?

But what if your business isn't part of the internet revolution? What if you still take your goods to market in a black horse-drawn buggy? What if your store doesn't even have electricity?

That's the dilemma that many Amish are facing right now. The New York Department of Taxation and Finance wants them to file sales taxes electronically, like any other business. The Department has even sent Amish business owners — mainly furniture makers and shopkeepers — letters threatening a $50 penalty for every return not electronically filed!

The Watertown Daily Times, which publishes in an area that's home to the conservative Swartzentruber and Heuvelten Amish clans, reports that the Department really wants to help. Spokeswoman Susan Burns said in an email that "our expectation was that businesses with concerns about complying would call the Taxpayer Contact Center." Unfortunately, most Amish don't have a telephone to make the call in the first place! (The spokeswoman said they could write or have someone else call on their behalf.)

Oh, and the Department would love to have taxpayers' Social Security numbers, too. But the Amish have been exempt from Social Security since 1965. So they generally don't have Social Security numbers, either!

Electronic filing is just one of many conflicts the Amish are facing with government. Amish have fought to avoid putting orange reflective triangles on their buggies. Patriot Act requirements making photo identification more important have made banking and travel harder. And some New York Amish are in federal court, fighting requirements over home smoke detectors.

In the end, the NY Department of Taxation and Finance appears to be showing a little common sense, honoring the Amish sense of devotion and letting them snail-mail their returns the old-fashioned way. What do you think? Do we lose anything by letting Amish taxpayers kick it old school? Or should we find a way to drag them online with the rest of us?

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