Peace activist Bill Sulzman in Colorado Springs protests the war in Iraq by refusing to pay the federal excise tax of about 50 cents on his monthly phone bill.
Sulzman also recruits others who are against U.S. military involvement in Iraq to stop paying the tax, which was first adopted in 1898 to pay for the Spanish- American War.
The tax raises about $5 billion a year, which activists say goes to fund war efforts. The Internal Revenue Service won’t confirm that the money goes exclusively to the military but instead says it goes for general fund expenditures, including military spending.
“It’s kind of entry-level active resistance,” Sulzman said. “Phone companies don’t cut off the phones. They don’t have the leverage.”
Nationally, an estimated 10,000 phone customers don’t pay the tax, said Ruth Benn, a spokeswoman for the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee in New York.
With many Americans questioning the rationale for the Iraq war, the number who don’t pay appears to be growing, said Betty Ball, a spokeswoman at the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center in Boulder.
About 57 percent of Americans disapprove of the way President Bush is handling the situation in Iraq, according to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll done Dec. 16-18. A Washington Post/ABC news poll, done Dec. 15-18, had a slightly more favorable outcome; it said 46 percent of Americans approve of his handling of Iraq.
Denver-based Qwest, the largest local phone provider in the 14-state western region stretching from Iowa to Washington state, declined to release the number of customers who don’t pay the tax in its territory.
War protesters withholding the phone tax first gained notoriety during the Vietnam War, when acts of civil disobedience were more common.
But phone companies aren’t complaining about the loss in revenue, mainly because they don’t like being pulled into the tax-collection business.
They are obligated to try to collect it but have no enforcement power.
“This tax is really another example, and a particularly silly one, of a tax on telecommunication service that once created, never goes away,” said Bill Myers, a Qwest spokesman.
Qwest said it adjusts customers’ bills to remove the excise tax if customers request it. Qwest and other phone companies must give the IRS a list of those who aren’t paying, including their addresses, the services provided, the dates and amounts the customers owed.
Those are requirements set out by IRS Publication No. 510, which requires providers of local, toll or private communications services to impose and collect a 3 percent tax on each line.
Verizon, Cingular and AT&T also work with customers who refuse to pay the tax.
“We will exempt customers who do not want to pay the federal excise tax,” said Kerry Hibbs, a national AT&T spokesman.
Even if it’s just a small amount, those who refuse to pay the tax run the risk of IRS scrutiny, said David Stell, an IRS spokesman.
“Every time somebody makes a decision not to pay taxes that are due and owing, they run the risk of being contacted by the Internal Revenue Service,” Stell said.
Shirley Whiteside said she and her husband, Byron Plumley of Denver, are not afraid.
“Some people would say it’s only symbolic, so it doesn’t matter, but it’s real money,” Whiteside said.
After the Spanish-American War ended, the tax was repealed in 1902.
It was later reinstated to help pay for World War I, World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, said Gary Erb, war tax coordinator at the Peace and Justice Center.
Erb said tax resisters should let their phone company know why they are not paying the tax. Including a note with their phone payments is one way of doing that.
The tax was made permanent in 1990 as part of Federal Communications Act legislation.
“I’m not afraid of being identified as a tax resister,” Sulzman said. “I’m not doing this as a scofflaw, or because I need the money or for other things. I do it because I oppose what the money is going for. Denver Post