November 2008

Understanding the Government

by Amy K. Frantz

Have you ever received a letter from a government agency that was so confusing and full of acronyms that you weren’t certain what the letter actually said? I have, and I’m sure many others have as well.  But this may be changing for letters received from at least one government agency in our state – the Iowa Department of Revenue.

The Iowa Department of Revenue is the agency that is responsible for collecting tax revenue for the state. The Department administers taxes such as the income tax, sales tax, hotel/motel tax, local option tax, inheritance tax, cigarette tax, and many more.  The mission statement of the Iowa Department of Revenue reads:  “To serve Iowans and to support government services in Iowa by collecting all taxes required by law, but no more.”[1]

Earlier this year, the Iowa Department of Revenue began the “Plain Talk” initiative, calling for any correspondence from the Department to be written more clearly and to the point, making letters easier to understand by those receiving them.

Iowa Department of Revenue Director Mark R. Schuling says this of the Plain Talk initiative:

Plain Talk is clear, straightforward writing, using only as many words as necessary. It is direct and to the point.  It is language that avoids obscurity, inflated vocabulary and convoluted sentence construction.  Plain Talk lets the readers concentrate on the message.  Plain Talk writers keep the recipient of the letter in mind at all times.

Studies show that Plain Talk reduces errors and saves time, effort, and money for both the public and for the government.[2]

In the Department of Revenue’s Iowa Tax e-News newsletter, Director Schuling asks readers to contact the Department with suggestions.[3]  If you receive a letter, and don’t understand what it is saying, contact the letter’s sender.  You may be doing your fellow Iowa taxpayers a favor!

As important as it is to understand a letter received from the government, it is equally important to understand what the government is doing with our tax dollars. The transparency movement is working to make government finances easier for the average taxpayer to understand.  Here in Iowa, Public Interest Institute is furthering the cause of transparency and accountability in Iowa state government with the creation of a transparency website, www.iowatransparency.org, allowing visitors to easily see the votes and spending habits of each Iowa Legislator.

The www.iowatransparency.org website will allow Iowans to see how the dollars total up in the spending column for each Legislator.  “Vote Tally” and “Bill Tally,” adapted from the National Taxpayers Union Foundation for the 2008 session of the Iowa General Assembly, will make information on appropriations votes immediately accessible to the taxpayers of Iowa.  “Vote Tally” analyzes floor votes on appropriations bills and gives reports on spending patterns of Iowa Legislators.  “Bill Tally” gives spending data for sponsored legislation introduced in chamber.[4]

Iowa taxpayers should not be kept in the dark about how much the government is spending and how those funds are being spent, because the taxpayers are the ones providing the funding.  Transparency will shed light on the government, so that Iowa citizens will understand where their tax dollars are going.

Amy K. Frantz is Senior Research Analyst at Public Interest Institute. 

The views expressed herein are those of the author and not necessarily those of Public Interest Institute or Tax Education Foundation. They are brought to you in the interest of a better-informed citizenry.

[1] Mission Statement, Iowa Department of Revenue, <http://www.state.ia.us/tax/contact/mission.html> (September 27, 2008).

[2] Mark R. Schuling, Director of the Iowa Department of Revenue, “Message from the Director,” Iowa Tax e-News, December 2007, <http://www.state.ia.us/tax/news/enew1207.html> (September 27, 2008).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Description of www.iowatransparency.org is from “Iowa Transparency:  An Idea Whose Time Has Come,” by Ellen Racheter, Public Interest Institute’s Iowa Transparency Newsletter, September 2008.