Maryland tax collectors, who dished out $1 million to publicize the state’s tax amnesty period, are blaming the September 11 terrorist attacks and a slowing economy for the program’s disappointing results.
So far the state has received $25.7 million in back taxes a far cry from the $70 million goal set by legislative analysts earlier this year.
“September 11 took people’s minds off domestic issues,” said Michael Golden, a spokesman for the state Comptroller’s Office. “The downturn in the economy made a lot of people less willing to part with their money.”
Taxpayers, both personal and corporate, who made payments between Sept. 1 and Oct. 31, did not have to pay any penalties for their overdue taxes. The penalties could have cost them as much as 25 percent of the amount owed or even time in jail.
The Comptroller’s Office is still tallying a backlog of about 1,000 payments and still receiving more payments by mail all postmarked on or before Oct. 31 but it doesn’t seem likely the $70 million goal will be reached.
Prior to the start of the program on Sept. 1, Comptroller William Donald Schaefer said the $70 million goal was too high and recently predicted a return of about $35 million, Mr. Golden said.
“It’s possible,” he said. “We just hope there are some big checks in the envelopes we’re going through.”
In total, taxpayers owe the state about $260 million in back taxes, Mr. Golden said.
In an effort to collect as much money as possible, Maryland used a bold advertising campaign developed by MGH Advertising and Public Relations in Owings Mills, Md.
The $1 million campaign, which blanketed billboards, buses, metro stops, televisions and print space, used two mysterious-looking men similar to the characters in the movie “Men in Black” and the old television show “Dragnet” as spokesmen for the two-month amnesty program.
The men dressed in black suits, ties and sunglasses could be seen on more than 200 billboards and 200 buses all over the state. The ads, which just read “Seek Amnesty,” were used as a teaser to introduce a more detailed television and print campaign featuring the two men and telling taxpayers about the program.
But in the first week after the September 11 attacks, much of the state’s planned television advertising was pulled because regularly scheduled programs weren’t running. Those ads ran closer to the end of the program instead.
In addition, MGH shifted some of the advertising dollars to more cable stations including channels like CNN and MSNBC.
“We wanted to take advantage of people tuning into the all-news channels,” Mr. Golden said.
Maryland held a similar amnesty program in 1987 collecting $34.6 million. The advertising budget then was $375,000.
Mr. Golden said the results of this year’s amnesty program had nothing to do with the state’s advertising effort but everything to do with timing.
“It was done at the worst time considering the events of September 11,” Mr. Golden said. “Timing is everything, they say.”