Dorothy Hansen used to pay her taxes faithfully every year — until the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Since then, the 87-year-old Sebastopol resident has stopped filing her income tax returns to show her disapproval of the war.
“I am very sure that I don’t want to have any part in killing people and I certainly don’t want a part in any wars that do just that,” Hansen said.
With the tax-filing deadline just two weeks away, some Bay Area residents are using it as an opportunity to protest the war by withholding their tax dollars to fund it.
Known as war tax resisters, they consider it an act of civil disobedience. Some withhold only a symbolic portion of what they owe — $10.40, for example, to represent the 1040 tax form — while others, like Hansen, refuse to pay anything at all. Many will redirect their tax dollars to a charity of their choice.
The risks can be costly if a resister is caught. The Internal Revenue Service recently increased the penalty for people who fail to pay their taxes to $5,000 from $500. Some resisters have had their wages garnisheed or property seized.
“There is no law that permits taxpayers to refuse to file a tax return or refuse to pay their taxes based on an estimate of what the government spends on programs or policies with which they disagree on moral, ethical, religious or other grounds,” the IRS said in a statement. “These frivolous positions are variations of arguments taxpayers have made in the past about religion and taxation, and that courts have repeatedly rejected.”
The IRS added that by not paying what they owe, tax resisters place an undue burden on the people who file their taxes legitimately.
Jesse Weller, an IRS spokesman, said the agency does not keep statistics on war tax resisters and how much money goes uncollected from them every year. The National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee in New York, as well as its local affiliate, the Northern California War Tax Resistance in Berkeley, said they have no way of tracking their numbers either.
Generally speaking, the IRS recovers about $55 billion through enforcement activities and late payments but there still remains a gap of $290 billion between taxes owed and taxes received. Weller said the IRS goes after promoters of tax resistance more aggressively than those who participate in the movement and warns that anyone who gets caught can face a criminal or civil penalty.
Nonetheless, war tax resisters persist, emboldened by the fact that it is probably too costly for the government to come after them. Hansen said she will stand by her beliefs regardless of the consequences.
“I have paid for taxes — I have helped to pay for wars before,” she said. “I’ve never felt good about that. It was the invasion of Iraq that pushed the button for me.”
Elizabeth Boardman, 65, of San Francisco plans to withhold 41 percent of her taxes this year, a number she estimates the government to be spending on the military from its total budget, excluding what it pays out to war veterans.
During the Vietnam War, Boardman — like many war tax resisters — stopped paying a phone excise tax on her monthly bill, proceeds from which were used, and are still used, to fund military activity. The tax, which dates back to 1898, was adopted under the War Revenue Act as a temporary levy to help fund the Spanish-American War. It was repealed in 1902 but reintroduced during World War I. The long-distance portion of the tax was repealed last year.
Refusal to pay the phone excise tax resulted in the government putting a lien on Boardman’s house, forcing her to cough up the money. Today, she realizes she still faces risks for withholding her income taxes but is willing to take them.
“I’m not going to pay for this war, and if they get the money from me, at least I didn’t give it voluntarily,” said Boardman, whose convictions are tied to her faith as a Quaker.
Boardman draws a careful distinction between a war tax resister and a tax evader. She encourages people who plan to withhold their taxes because of the war to inform the government, rather than duck responsibility completely.
She added: “When you commit civil disobedience and break the law of the nation, you have to make very sure you uphold all the other laws so you’re not just a scofflaw.”
Some war tax resisters will go to extremes to avoid breaking the law without compromising their convictions. For example, David Gross, 37, of San Francisco took a pay cut so he would fall below the tax line.
“I started with the invasion of Iraq,” Gross said. “I was having a real hard time with the money that already went toward missiles and I knew that some of it was mine.”
Four years ago, Gross was managing a group of technology writers at a software company, making close to $100,000 a year. He approached his human resources department about taking a pay cut so that his income would fall below the tax line and exempt him from paying federal taxes. His company refused, so he quit.
Today, Gross said, he makes about $28,000 doing contract work. He has moved some of that money into an individual retirement account and a health savings account, bringing his take-home pay to $15,000 and allowing him to avoid taxes.
The adjustment to his lifestyle has been much easier than he thought, Gross said. He now lives in an apartment in San Francisco’s Richmond District and cooks at home a lot.
“For me, I don’t feel like I’ve made sacrifices,” he said. “The life I live now is more fulfilling than I had before.”
Steve Leeds, 54, of San Francisco became a war tax resister when he was 23. He said he believes people like him, along with peace activists who marched in protests in the 1970s, helped end the Vietnam War.
Even though Leeds, who is also a Quaker, has had his wages garnisheed by the government because of his refusal to pay his taxes, he said he will not waver. And even though he knows there are many people who may not join the resistance out of fear of repercussions from the government, it does not matter.
“We would like to see hundreds of thousands or millions of people doing this,” Leeds said. “But I’m not going to wait for millions of people to do this. I’m going to do it myself.”
E-mail Pia Sarkar at email@example.com