Yesterday’s tax activity at work reminded me of something I am reminded of every time I go to fill out on-line tax forms: this is something the federal government is much, much (much) better at than the State of Colorado.
This still surprises me, all these years after I first started using on-line forms. I guess I expect the federal government to be a giant, unwieldy bureaucracy, so I figure their forms and websites will reflect that. But the reality is that for the information the government says it needs, their interfaces are very easy to work with and relatively painless.
Irs.gov is easy enough to navigate, given the breadth of information it contains, although once upon a time you couldn’t even get there unless you specifically typed “www” before irs.gov. And while they’ve refined and reworked the way the public accesses information on the website, usually for the better, they don’t make a point of re-doing their forms just for the sake of doing so. Like, say, the State of Colorado, which has never met a website it wouldn’t like to complicate.
I had already input my W-2 information for last year’s employees, which, after touting the IRS, is actually done through Social Security. There they have a nifty little button that lets me dredge up last year’s information, including my FEIN (federal employer identification number), employee names, Social Security numbers and addresses, and it pre-fills out all that information for me in the W-2s, saving me a ton of work.
With that all done, all I needed to do yesterday was transmit the information, which I did, just one hour before I realized I had left my old address on my own W-2.
Then it was time to give this same information to the state. And while I go through this same process annually, Colorado seems like it goes out of its way to make it harder and harder. Almost as if it really doesn’t want your information. Or: it wants you to be late with your information, so it can fine you. Which it sometimes threatens to do anyway, after its systems inevitably fail and they tell you you didn’t file a report that you did, in fact, file. (Lesson: always save your verifications.)
So first you go to taxcolorado.com, a website that is under constant revision and never for the better. This year it proudly touts its motto: “Always help,” a motto that makes me laugh, because just trying to get hold of anyone at the state is an act of cosmic exertion. And getting someone who can actually address your issue . . . those people don’t exist.
Eventually I default to “Revenue Online.” This is a place I log into at least once a month every month, almost always from Kara’s computer, and every time — every single time — it demands to send a “verification code” to Kara’s e-mail before I am allowed into my account.
Perhaps I should be grateful that no one can break into my account easily and file sales tax on my behalf (all right, I know they could look at my past returns, but I’d really rather they filed sales tax for me), but then we go to report all employees’ wages for the year — and you don’t even have to be in your account to do this. No passwords, no verification code. The only trick is, you have to find it on the Revenue Online website.
It took several years for me to figure out and remember this. I can’t tell you how many hours I have wasted, going into my highly-guarded account and searching everywhere for the link to be able to file this. Now I remember that it’s not in my account, but finding it is still quite the trick. I posted the screen above; see how long it takes you.
[This website does remind me of an entire aspect of sales tax collection I forgot, one that can cripple little businesses in Colorado: unless they fixed it, the state now expects you to collect and remit sales tax for the end destination of any product you sell within the state. If I sell a shirt to someone in Grand Junction, I am now supposed to report that single sale, figure out Grand Junction’s tax rate, and report that to the state. And if I sell a second shirt to someone in Ouray, and a third to someone in Pueblo . . . businesses with a larger on-line presence than mine were reportedly having to hire accountants just to figure out their sales tax.]
Your fabulous prize for finding the link to submit the year-end withholding report (remember, this is the second website we’ve been to, and we haven’t even started the process) is an encounter with the State of Colorado’s favorite thing in the entire world: redundancy. Our state is not happy unless they can make you supply the same information as many times as possible.
They do this with sales tax and withholding remittance, too. You are already in your super-secure account, after verifying you are who you think you are, and before you can give them money you have to assure them you “want” to do this, and then you have to enter your password again. If I had the password to get into the account, even if it was for nefarious purposes (like I guess zeroing my bank account out and giving it to the state — what sort of criminal does that?), doesn’t it stand to reason I would still have that password at hand five minutes later?
But the State of Colorado loves making its on-line filers repeat information. Filling out the quarterly unemployment report used to be easy: all employees were on one page, and you just put their wage amounts next to their names. Now every one of them gets his or her own screen, and there’s bonus lag time, so while I’m filling out Gilly’s form, it tells me I’m on Kara’s, whose form I just finished. That’s always helpful.
And nowhere does the state love its redundancy more than in the year-end withholding report. The first thing I am asked for is my FEIN. I click “next,” and the next thing I am asked for is my FEIN. Then I am directed to screens to input employee information, all of it: name, address, Social Security number, weight, height, eye color (okay, maybe not all of that) — and my FEIN. Every time. Every screen. We had 11 employees at Pat’s last year at various times — that’s 13 times my FEIN got put in one report.
An FEIN is nine digits long, like a Social Security number, but with only one hyphen: xx-xxxxxxx. If I didn’t have it memorized before, it should be burned into my brain after completion of my year-end withholding report for the state. Along with my own Social Security number and Captain Kirk’s serial number. I haven’t needed all three of these numbers on an equal basis over the years, but I’m sure it’s worth having brain cells committed to all of them.
Thirteen times nine is a lot, with many opportunities for fingers not as nimble as they once were to mess up. And while I did go back to check my work on employee Social Security numbers and pay amounts, I didn’t look to see if my FEIN was correct every time.
If your form is going to be that stupid, and you’ve had years to improve this and just can’t manage it, then you, State of Colorado, deserve to have to live with some typos. Because that’s the state I live in.