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The Journal Gazette

Monday, February 11, 2019 1:00 am

Smaller tax refunds frustrating many

Heather Long | Washington Post

Millions of Americans filling out their 2018 taxes will probably be surprised to learn that their refund will be less than expected or that they owe money to the Internal Revenue Service after years of receiving refunds.

People have taken to social media, using the hashtag GOPTaxScam, to vent their anger. Many are blaming President Donald Trump and Republicans for their shrinking refund. Some on Twitter have even said they voted for Trump but won't do so again after seeing their refund.

The uproar comes after Trump and congressional Republicans passed a major overhaul of the tax code in December 2017, the biggest legislative achievement of the president's first year. While the vast majority of Americans did get a tax cut in 2018, refunds are a different matter. Some refunds have decreased because of the changes in the tax code made by the law, such as a new limit on property and local income tax deductions, and some have decreased because of how the IRS has altered withholding in paychecks.

John Prugh of Ewing Township, New Jersey, was irate when he completed his 2018 tax return this month and discovered his refund would be $3,000 less than what he received last year. Prugh considers himself “solidly middle class.”

The 39-year-old is a manager at a Barnes & Noble Bookstore, and his wife works for the state government. They have two children. Prugh said he had no reason to think their tax situation would change this year, since he and his wife have lived in the same house for years and have received about the same pay.

“It totally feels like a scam,” said Prugh, who did not vote for Trump. “I did still get a small refund, but compared to what I was expecting from previous years, it was shock.”

The average tax refund check is down 8 percent ($170) this year versus last, the IRS reported Friday, and the number of people receiving a refund has dropped by almost a quarter.

An IRS spokesman said not to read much into these early figures because they reflect only returns processed through Feb. 1, and the partial government shutdown caused some delays in processing filings.

The Government Accountability Office warned last summer that the number of tax filers who receive refunds was likely to drop for the 2018 tax year and the number of filers who owe money would rise.

The GAO pointed to an IRS estimate that about 4.6 million fewer filers would receive refunds this tax filing season. Another 4.6 million were likely to owe money who hadn't had that experience in the past.

Many Americans may confuse their small refund as a sign that they paid more in taxes as a result of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. Generally, that is not true.

According to the Tax Policy Center, 80 percent of filers received a tax cut and about 5 percent wound up paying more in federal income taxes. The tax cuts showed up in fatter weekly or biweekly paychecks for most Americans, but few people noticed, according to polling.

What happened to many families is they received a tax cut, but their refund is smaller this year because the IRS made major changes to the “withholding tables” – the amount the federal government recommends taking out of your paycheck for federal income taxes –because of the new tax law. The IRS was trying to set withholding levels so that more people would pay the correct amount of taxes, meaning they neither owe anything to the IRS at the end of the year nor receive a refund.

“I am really frustrated with my refund this year. I was expecting good chunk of change. I was going to put it toward buying a car,” said Sal Ramirez, a 20-year-old packaging designer in San Gabriel Valley, California. He earns $45,000 and said he received a refund last year of over $1,200 because he puts zero withholding on his W-4 form at work.

Ramirez just got his refund from the IRS and it's only $900 this year, likely because of changes to the withholding tables. He figures he'll need to save a few more months for the car.