The lines were long at the James Farley U.S. Post Office in New York as taxpayers wait to mail their taxes Monday.
By Erin McClam, Staff Writer, NBC News
Some people can’t stomach the thought of turning hard-earned money over to the federal government. For others, everyday life is just too busy. A handful admit a perverse thrill from waiting until the last minute.
And then there is Janet Metsa of Houghton, Mich., who had perhaps the most creative excuse for waiting until the final hours on April 15 to submit her tax return.
“We are making maple syrup and have been busy tapping trees in our maple bush and boiling the resulting sap. The tax deadline has just sneaked up on us!” she said. “We are not usually this late.”
Welcome to Tax Day in America — the Olympics of procrastination, the Super Bowl of stalling, the extreme sport of excuse-making, the high holy day of having something better to do. Festivus for the stressed of us.
On Sunday night, with hours to go before the deadline, prime time for kitchen-table calculator-pounding, NBC News put out a call for readers to explain why they waited until the last minute.
We heard from people all over the country. They sent us emails. They tweeted. They posted to Facebook. All hungry to commune with others taking part in our national springtime ritual.
Lyna Woo mails her taxes at the James Farley U.S. Post Office in New York on Monday.
Or maybe they were happy to find an excuse to put off the dirty work.
Emily Fritz of Richmond, Ky., keeps a box in the back seat of her car — a cute one, she volunteered, adorned with sea creatures and mermaids, better suited for recipe cards or old family photographs.
She works as a private nanny and keeps her tax documents in the box. It’s been sitting undisturbed for two months, she said, because she is dreading watching the numbers on TurboTax zip into the red.
“So instead of a refund, which I could SO use right now, I’m up at 5 in the morning writing this email and further avoiding my taxes because I don’t want to know how many thousands I owe,” she wrote.
An estimated 20 to 25 percent of Americans are chronic procrastinators, said Joseph Ferrari, a psychology professor at DePaul University and — it turns out there is such a thing — a leading expert on procrastination.
It doesn’t take a doctorate to figure out why: We put off things that we consider “aversive,” meaning they are boring or complicated or unpleasant, like shuffling through forms with ugly names like Form 941 Schedule B.
The Internal Revenue Service doesn’t keep day-by-day statistics, so there’s no way of knowing with precision how many Americans are April 15ers.
But we know that what they lack in timeliness, they make up for in numbers. Last year, the IRS processed about 148 million returns. With three days to go before the filing deadline, the agency had received only about 109 million of them.
You do the math. But then, that’s the problem, isn’t it?
“I will be one of those rushing to file tonight,” wrote Amanda Scott of Washington. “It reminds me of the feeling I got when cramming for a test in college. Those days are over, but tax day gives me a slight reminder of what my time in undergrad was like.”
This is a rare subspecies of the tax procrastinator, the people motivated by nostalgia. More common were people like Mike White, who figured he would be more likely to blow the tax refund on something frivolous if he got it early.
It did not appear to be his main reason. About four in five Americans now file taxes online, but White said that he planned to file on paper this year, just to spite the government. He added that Uncle Sam could kiss an unprintable part of his anatomy.
“I would send them a paper 1040 with Braille Roman numerals if I knew how,” he said.
Putting tax preparation off is not a phenomenon restricted to everyday Americans. The Obamas filed their tax return this year with a mere week to spare — $608,000 in taxable income, $112,000 in federal taxes paid.
The First Filers left themselves slightly more breathing room this year by turning in their return April 8. Last year, they filed April 11. The year before that, April 13.
So this is progress.
The closest thing to a dog-ate-my-homework explanation came from Vanessa Weiss of Hilliard, Ohio, who works as an agent’s assistant in an insurance office. She said she is a habitual tax procrastinator but has a good excuse this time — a computer virus.
“I’m going to a friend’s tonight to use her computer,” she said.
Then she added: “It doesn’t help that this year I have to pay.”
Pittsburgh Police Chief Nate Harper, seen in May 2011.
By Joe Mandak, Associated Press
PITTSBURGH - Former city police Chief Nate Harper will plead guilty to charges that he conspired to steal city police funds deposited into unauthorized police credit union accounts and failed to file federal tax returns from 2008 to 2011, his attorneys said Friday.
Harper's lawyers made the announcement at a news conference on a day of fast-moving developments in the federal investigation after prosecutors announced the grand jury indictment, Harper pleaded not guilty to the charges at an arraignment, and the judge said the former chief could remain free.
U.S. Attorney David Hickton called Harper's actions "the worst kind of public corruption," and said it was "a sad day" for authorities who had worked closely with the soft-spoken, generally well-liked and seemingly humble man on issues ranging from gang violence and security for the G-20 economic summit in 2009.
"This is puzzling and baffling behavior," Hickton said.
Later, Harper begged off appearing at the news conference at the last minute because he was "embarrassed and distraught," defense attorney Robert DelGreco said. The 36-year police veteran has lost 20 pounds since Mayor Luke Ravenstahl demanded his resignation Feb. 20 after meeting with the FBI about the investigation, Harper's attorneys said.
But the former chief, who came up through the ranks of Pittsburgh's roughly 800-officer force and was chief since 2006, takes "full responsibility" for his actions, said Robert Leight, another Harper attorney.
"I think we're prepared to plead to that indictment without modification," DelGreco said.
The indictment alleges the 60-year-old Harper conspired with unnamed others to divert more than $70,000 from a city account into two unauthorized credit union accounts, then spent nearly $32,000 of that himself. It includes a single charge of conspiracy and four counts of willfully failing to file income tax returns.
Although the federal crimes carry a maximum combined penalty of nine years in prison, Harper's attorneys said guidelines dictate a likely sentence of 10 to 16 months - low enough for them to argue for probation or alternative incarceration, like house arrest.
Hickton wouldn't comment Friday on a likely sentence. He said the investigation is continuing, although he wouldn't say whether the mayor or other city personnel are targeted.
Ravenstahl denies any wrongdoing or being a target of the probe, although he's acknowledged two bodyguards, also city officers, used debit cards from the same credit union accounts. The 33-year-old mayor has decided not to run for re-election, citing the toll on his family from the scandal.
In statements Friday, Ravenstahl and interim police Chief Regina McDonald said the indictment against Harper was "sad." They said they are working to bolster confidence in the police bureau.
The investigation centers on a $3.85 hourly fee that bars, restaurants and other businesses pay the city when they hire off-duty officers to work security details. The money is collected on top of whatever hourly wage the officers are paid and, by law, must be kept in city-controlled accounts and spent only on certain types of police business.
Instead, Harper helped open the credit union accounts from which he spent $31,987 - mostly at restaurants, bars and department stores - using two Visa debit cards to make automatic teller machine withdrawals and purchases, Hickton said.
Harper's attorneys said the former chief was somewhat "naive" and may have believed at first that it was OK to open the unauthorized accounts because the money was still being spent on police-related business, including a massive Gatorade purchase to quench the thirst of officers brought in to handle the G-20 protests, for example.
At some point, however, Harper began spending the money on himself, which DelGreco said Harper understands was "unambiguously and indefensibly" wrong.
The attorneys hinted that Harper, who has three daughters and five grandchildren, exhausted his wages on his family and became tempted by the credit union funds.
"I think the lure of the unmonitored accessibility of that account proved to be an irresistible temptation," DelGreco said.
The attorneys said Harper didn't fail to file his tax returns to hide the money, but simply because of "procrastination" and "personal issues" that took precedence. Among other things, three city police officers were fatally gunned down in April 2009 - when the first of Harper's delinquent tax returns would have been due - and Harper never got back on track in handling his personal affairs, the attorneys said.
The indictment grew out of another federal investigation in which a former city employee has already pleaded guilty to taking $6,000 in bribes to help a business owned by a man Harper has described as a former friend land a $327,000 contract to install computers and radios in squad cars in 2007.
Harper continues to deny taking bribes or making money from that contract, Leight said. But as investigators poked into Harper's finances to see if he had any unexplained income from that scheme, Harper told investigators about money he stole from the police fees fund, Leight said.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
H&R Block customers can file online or at an office, like this one.
By Isolde Raftery, TODAY
UPDATES story to clarify that H&R Block was not the sole software company affected by the problem.
A filing error has resulted in the delay of up to 600,000 tax refunds -- among them students who need the money to pay for books and the tax receipt to apply for financial aid, the IRS said Tuesday.
One of them is Franccesca Parodi, a 26-year-old interior design student from Seattle, who filed her taxes early this year at her neighborhood H&R Block office. She paid about $150 for 30-40 minutes with a tax consultant.
When the $2,500 refund Parodi was expecting didn’t show up, and the IRS Where’s My Refund? feature online said her tax return was still being processed, she went to the H&R Block website to see if others were having the same problem. That’s when she learned that Form 8863, relating to student tax credits, had been filed incorrectly.
On H&R Block's blog and Facebook page, she saw thousands of angry customers sounding off. She wrote that she, too, was frustrated.
H&R Block explained that the form had changed, and that in previous years, five lines on the form could be left blank for a “no” answer. Starting this year, preparers must enter an “N” in those fields or risk a delay. The tax-filing company said it learned about the tax form change after it had submitted hundreds of thousands of tax returns. The IRS said it was aware of the problem and it is continuing to review the situation and work with "affected software companies to assist in the processing of those tax returns."
In separate statements on Tuesday, H&R Block and the IRS said those who submitted tax returns between Feb. 14 and Feb. 22 would receive their tax refunds within 21 days -- not eight weeks as stated in an earlier letter from the IRS to those impacted.
“We want to assure the impacted clients that we are doing everything we can," H&R Block said in a statement. "The IRS has informed us and other impacted providers that they are currently processing returns.”
In a statement, the IRS said: “While the number of tax returns affected is around 10 percent of the total returns claiming the credit, the IRS continues working aggressively to address this situation and hopes to reduce those projected refund time frames further.”
About 6.6 million tax returns include Form 8863, although only about 10 percent are affected, the IRS confirmed to NBC News.
For Parodi, 26, the new timeline for her refund not good enough. Financial aid officers at her school told her that if she didn’t file her return from the IRS, she would likely not receive grants to pay for school. Her part-time waitressing job at Kells Irish Restaurant & Pub in downtown Seattle brings in less than $20,000 a year, and she worries she won't be able to afford school this summer.
Hoping for more answers, she returned to the H&R Block office Tuesday, where she was assured the problem had been fixed.
Parodi said she is overwhelmed, but that she doesn’t want to demand a refund from H&R Block because she is preparing for finals.
“They’re not assuming responsibility, they’re saying it’s the IRS," she said. "I’m like, ‘What do I do? Stay here and fight with these people all day or go home and do my homework?’” she said.
H&R Block, the nation's largest tax preparer, posted updates to its Facebook page and apologized on its blog to individual filers who have complained.
H&R Block isn’t the only tax filing company that has been in trouble recently. Last week, the Minnesota Department of Revenue warned taxpayers against using TurboTax to file their state income taxes, finding 10,000 returns had problems, according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
In a terse statement Friday, the Minnesota Department of Revenue said it would stop processing tax returns filed through Intuit -- which operates TurboTax -- if the problem is not fixed.
As for Parodi, she says she’ll either file by pen and paper next year, or she’ll ask a friend for help.
“Nobody told me anything,” she said. “They didn’t even call us. I had to go to their office and talk to them, ask what’s going on? I’m very unhappy.”
Jacques Wajsfelner hid $5.7 million from U.S. tax authorities, failing to file Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts Reports from 2006 to 2011.
A judge in a federal court in Manhattan ordered Wajsfelner to pay a civil penalty of $2.8 million and $419,940 in back taxes. He was also given sixth months of probation, including three months of home confinement, authorities said.
Wajsfelner’s financial adviser Beda Singenberger was charged in July 2011 with conspiring with U.S. taxpayers to hide more than $184 million in various Swiss banks. The case against Singenberger is still pending.
The German-born Wajsfelner opened an account in his own name at Credit Suisse, a Swiss bank headquartered in Zurich, Switzerland, beginning in 1995.
In 2006, authorties believe Singenberger helped Wajsfelner open an undeclared account at the Swiss bank using the name of the fake corporation “Ample Lion.”
“By opening the Ample Lion account at Credit Suisse, Wajsfelner was attempting to obscure his ownership of the assets in the account from the IRS,” said a statement released by Preet Bharara, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York.
In the fall of 2008, Credit Suisse ended its U.S. cross-border banking business, and in order to continue hiding money he opened an account with Swiss bank Wegelin. By the end of 2010 the account was valued at $5.5 million.
On Monday, Wegelin was and ordered to pay nearly $58 million to the United States for their role in the tax evasion schemes.
As part of their last-second deal to slam the brakes on an economy racing toward the so-called fiscal cliff, lawmakers gave the green light this week to extending dozens of business and industry tax breaks, like a cost-recovery program that will save the owners of "motorsports entertainment complexes" (that is, racetracks) about $70 million over the next two years.
Much of the compromise agreement that President Barack Obama's autopen signed into law Thursday was targeted at individuals and families, notably preserving most of the tax cuts that passed under President George W. Bush, which were set to expire Monday. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, told MSNBC that the deal was "a big gift-wrapped present of certainty to the middle class."
But the agreement also came loaded with extensions of separate existing tax breaks for businesses and industries, many of which had expired in the past year — about $67.9 billion in all in 2013, as tabulated by Congress' Joint Committee on Taxation.
(The extensions will actually cost much more: Not only were they made retroactive to cover 2012, but some of the breaks and credits would be in effect for 10 years if left in place. Many cover only one or two years, however.)
In addition to extending tax breaks for racing moguls, the legislation also extended:
• A tax credit for construction of renewable energy projects, like wind turbines and biomass, geothermal and hydropower generation, for one year. It's projected to cost about $116 million, the committee said.
That may seem like a drop in the bucket, but here's the kicker: While the extension to qualify for new projects covers only 2013, the actual tax credit itself is good for 10 years. That means new projects that break ground in 2013 will be able to claim the credit for the next decade, at an overall price tag the committee put at slightly less than $12.2 billion.
• An arcane provision of corporate tax law, called active financing income, that lets U.S. corporations defer taxes on some income they earn from their overseas subsidiaries. That provision will cost the U.S. Treasury more than $9 billion this year and $1.8 billion next year.
• Tax breaks for Hollywood producers who shoot their movies and TV shows in the U.S., at a cost of about $430 million through 2014.
• A program that sends most federal taxes collected on rum produced in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands back to those territories to subsidize domestic production. Bar tab: $222 million over two years.
• A tax break worth about $15 million a year for asparagus growers hit hard by cheap asparagus imported from Peru.
• $4 million in tax breaks over the next two years for people who buy "2- or 3-wheeled plug-in electric vehicles" — in other words, electric scooters, Segways and the like.
The purpose of the deal was to prevent a series of steep spending cuts and tax increases on the middle class from automatically taking effect in the new year. But "we're not making it (the tax system) better or fairer," Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said on the House floor Tuesday in explaining why he was voting against the measure.
"We're not getting rid of the NASCAR loophole. We're not getting rid of the electric motor scooter low-speed loophole. We're not getting rid of a whole lot of tax things that are here," Issa said.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., tells Ed Schultz how the Democrats and the White House plan to move forward, with or without House Speaker John Boehner, pictured, as a larger fight over the deficit looms.
Neither new nor secret Although many of the provisions are being characterized as new pork barrel programs that sneaked their way into the bill under cover of darkness, there's nothing new or secret about any of them.
Most of the tax breaks had been scheduled to expire on Dec. 31, 2011, and as long ago as February, lawmakers were seeking a way to revive them.
Eventually, they were packaged together as the Family and Business Tax Cut Certainty Act of 2012. It was so titled because "people need certainty to plan their finances, and businesses need certainty to hire, invest and grow," as Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., chairman of the Finance Committee, said when the committee passed the package in August.
Once it was out of committee, the measure went nowhere. That is, until this week, when — with a lame-duck Congress just hours away from going home without having addressed the fiscal cliff — it was substituted almost word for word into the deal brokered by Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
It makes up Titles III and IV of the final bill, with many of the alterations reading like this:
Paragraph (1) of section 7652(f) is amended by striking "January 1, 2012" and inserting "January 1, 2014".
Former Sens. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., left, and Erskine Bowles, D-N.C., co-chairman of President Barack Obama's 2010 deficit commission, said Congress missed a 'magic moment' to reform the tax code.
By taking the clock down to 00:00 and backing itself into a corner, Congress "missed this magic moment to do something big to reduce the deficit, reform our tax code and fix our entitlement programs," said former Sens. Erskine Bowles, D-N.C., and Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., the co-chairmen of Obama's 2010 commission responsible for finding a way out of the country's economic morass.
"We have all known for over a year that this fiscal cliff was coming," they said in a joint statement Tuesday, adding: "Yet even after taking the country to the brink of economic disaster, Washington still could not forge a common sense bipartisan consensus on a plan that stabilizes the debt."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was less diplomatic.
"It's so incredibly disappointing that members of Congress saw fit to add hundreds of millions of dollars in special-interest handouts to the recently passed 'fiscal cliff' bill, which had the simple purpose of avoiding massive tax rate increases on average Americans," McCain said Thursday.
"It's hard to think of anything that could feed the cynicism of the American people more than larding up must-pass emergency legislation with giveaways to special interests and campaign contributors," he said. "And this growing cynicism — largely justified in my view — will make it harder for us to deliver the tough medicine needed to address our crushing national debt."
Military families have special challenges with their finances and that includes tax preparation. TurboTax has just released a new version of its tax preparation software created specifically for military filers. For a limited time, it’s free for junior enlisted personnel.
“TurboTax Military Edition was created by active reserve and retired military personnel and military spouses, and they really understand the unique challenges of filing taxes when you’re in the military,” explained spokeswoman Julie Miller. “There are more than two million military taxpayers, and because they have a unique set of needs, we realized that we had to have a more personalized product that met those needs.”
TurboTax Military Edition gives step-by-step guidance to help service members claim every deduction and credit they’re entitled to, so they can keep more of their hard-earned money. This includes determining state of residency, filing in multiple states, deductions for relocation expenses and uniforms, combat pay, and what to do if you have a PCS (permanent change of station).
“It speaks their language,” Miller said. “It uses the terms they’re familiar with to make it easier for them.”
TurboTax will be fully up to date with the new tax laws by early next week, Miller said. From now through Feb. 14, this software is free for junior enlisted personnel (rank E-1 to E-5) in any branch of the Armed Forces. It’s also available during this time period for $24.95 (a $5 discount) for anyone ranked E-6 through officer.
Every military member using this TurboTax software, even the free version, can get one-on-one advice via phone or chat from one of the company’s tax experts.
Intuit, the parent company of TurboTax, also has joined with Operation Homefront to help military members who need financial support and assistance.
Through a joint fundraising effort called Mission2Match, Intuit will match up to $1 million in donations made to Operation Homefront through April 15, 2013. TurboTax customers can donate as part of their online tax preparation.
“We are asking our customers to join us and give generously to support U.S. servicemen and women and their families,” Dan Maurer, an Intuit senior vice president, said in a statement.
Donations are also being accepted on the TurboTax Facebook page and YouTube channel. Only donations made through this Mission2Match program are eligible for the company’s match. Donations will be matched a second time if donors tweet about the fundraising effort (#mission2match).
“We’ve found that many people want to support our service members, but don’t always know how,” said Jim Knotts, president and chief executive officer of Operation Homefront in a statement. “By combining their technology and huge public reach, TurboTax is giving their customers the opportunity to provide that support exactly when it is most on their minds.”
President Obama said he's willing to compromise, but it remains to be seen whether or not he will reject House Speaker John Boehner's back-up plan which would prevent tax hikes on those making less than $1 million. NBC's Chuck Todd reports.
By NBCâs Mark Murray
An overwhelming majority of Americans want Congress and the Obama White House to reach a deal featuring both tax increases and spending cuts to avert the so-called fiscal cliff, according to the latest national NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
In fact, majorities of Democrats, Republicans and political independents each support such a deal.
Yet respondents are split over whether any kind of agreement can be reached, and nearly seven in 10 believe that the coming year will feature Democrats and Republicans in Congress showing little willingness to come to an agreement on important matters.
Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart, who conducted the survey with Republican pollster Bill McInturff, says the public is sending this one-word message to Washington: compromise.
The survey – conducted a month after November’s election – also shows a positive uptick in opinion toward President Barack Obama, and more negative views about defeated GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney and the Republican Party. The poll also finds that a majority of Americans now support gay marriage.
Fiscal cliff talks have stalled as 'serious differences' remain between both parties â and according to the latest NBC/WSJ poll the public wants an agreement, soon. Although both sides are still discussing ways to avoid the fiscal cliff, neither side is optimistic that they'll come to a resolution before Christmas. NBC's Chuck Todd reports.
‘Hints of a thaw’
According to the poll, a combined 68 percent of Americans say that the fiscal cliff – the looming combination of tax increases and spending cuts set to take place at the beginning of next year if nothing is done – is either a “very serious” or “fairly serious” problem.
A similar two-thirds of respondents are willing to accept an increase in taxes or cuts in federal government programs they care about to reach an agreement to avoid the problem.
Asked another way, 65 percent say leaders in Congress should find a compromise to reduce the budget deficit, even if that means Democrats would need to accept targeted spending cuts to Social Security and Medicare, and that Republicans would need to accept targeted increases in tax rates.
NBC's Mark Murray and Domenico Montanaro discuss the latest developments in the fiscal negotiations between President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner.
By comparison, just 28 percent believe that leaders should stick to their traditional positions on the deficit – even if that means Congress goes over the fiscal cliff, triggering those automatic spending cuts and tax increases.
“There are hints of a thaw here, compared to previous data we’ve seen,” McInturff says.
Indeed, for the first time in the poll, a majority of Republicans (59 percent) want GOP leaders in the House and Senate to make compromises in order to gain consensus in the current budget debate.
Previously, in 2011, majorities of Republicans said they preferred GOP leaders to stick to their positions rather than make compromises.
And the percentage of Democrats who favor compromise on this question (70 percent) is now at an all-time high in the survey.
With Christmas less than two weeks away, the White House is faced with the same key question â Can House Speaker John Boehner deliver enough Republican votes for whatever debt deal he and President Barack Obama agree on. The Daily Rundown's Chuck Todd reports.
Who’s to blame if there isn’t a deal? Everyone
Yet the public is split – 48 percent of respondents are optimistic, and 48 percent are pessimistic – over whether Congress will be able to reach consensus to avoid the fiscal cliff. And another 69 percent believe that the next year on Capitol Hill will be marked by division and little willingness to compromise.
If there is no compromise on the fiscal cliff and the automatic tax increases and spending cuts go into effect at the beginning of next year, 24 percent say they will blame congressional Republicans more, while 19 percent will point the finger at Obama and congressional Democrats.
But a majority of respondents (56 percent) say they’ll blame both sides equally.
Still, twice as many Americans say they trust the president more in handling this fiscal situation (38 percent) than House Speaker John Boehner and the congressional Republicans (19 percent).
And significant majorities believe Obama holds a clear mandate from the election on issues related to this subject:
68 percent say he has a mandate on cutting taxes for families earning less than $250,000 per year
65 percent say he has a mandate on reducing the deficit by both increasing taxes on the wealthy and reducing federal spending
And 59 percent say he has a mandate on eliminating the Bush-era tax cuts for household income over $250,000 a year.
Obama’s lift vs. the GOP’s decline
Speaking of Obama, the poll shows an uptick in his numbers after his victory in last month’s presidential election.
Fifty-three percent of adults approve of his overall job performance, and 49 percent approve of his handling of the economy – higher marks on these questions than at any time during the 2012 campaign.
Another 53 percent say they feel either “optimistic and confident” or “satisfied and hopeful” Obama will do a good job as president, which is up three points from Oct. 2012.
“Any president has a little bit of a lift heading into the first few months of any new term in office,” McInturff, the GOP pollster, says.
Thursday's "Gaggle" which includes Jackie Kucinich, Margie Omero, Perry Bacon and Bob Costa talk about the fiscal cliff negotiations.
But if Obama is getting a lift after the election, the Republican Party is seeing a further decline.
The GOP’s favorable/unfavorable rating in the poll now stands at 30 percent/45 percent (minus-15 points), which is down from 36 percent/43 percent (minus-7) right before the election.
That’s compared with the Democratic Party’s 44 percent/35 percent rating (plus-9 points).
What’s more, asked to give a word or short phrase to describe the Republican Party, 65 percent offered a negative comment, including more than half of Republicans.
Some of the responses: “Bad,” “weak,” “negative,” “uncompromising,” “need to work together,” “broken,” “disorganized” and “lost.”
By contrast, 37 percent gave negative descriptions of the Democratic Party, while 35 percent were positive.
“Republicans have gone off the image cliff,” says Hart, the Democratic pollster.
“Elections have consequences,” McInturff adds about the GOP. “And among those consequences is the cost of losing.”
The consequences of losing also exist for Romney, whom Obama defeated in November.
Romney’s favorable/unfavorable rating in the poll is 35 percent/44 percent (minus-9 points), down from his 43 percent/44 percent score (minus-1) before the election. Much of that drop comes from Republicans and conservatives.
Majority supports same-sex marriage
Finally, for the first time ever in the NBC/WSJ poll, a majority of respondents – 51 percent – support same-sex marriage.
That percentage in support is up from 30 percent in 2004, 41 percent in 2009 and 49 percent in March 2012, demonstrating how quickly public opinion on this issue has changed in just eight years.
The NBC/WSJ poll was conducted Dec. 6-9 of 1,000 adults (including 300 cell phone-only respondents), and it has an overall margin of error of plus-minus 3.1 percentage points.
The $25 tax on every gun purchased in the county -- city law prohibits gun sales in Chicago -- is meant to offset health care and other costs of gun violence, Board President Toni Preckwinkle said.
"Gun violence is a real problem for us," she said. "It's a problem for us in our criminal justice system and it's a problem for us in our health care system, and I make no apologies for the proposal."
Preckwinkle said the average shooting victim cost taxpayers $52,000 in acute care because nearly 70 percent of the victims don't have health insurance, NBCChicago.com reported.
The vote follows a violent Chicago summer, when some weekends left multiple people killed and dozens of others injured in shootings, NBCChicago.com reported. The city's murder rate is up 25 percent for the year, and the Cook County Jail is near capacity with 9,000-plus inmates.
The National Rifle Association ahead of the vote said the "misguided and burdensome" gun tax "continues to penalize law-abiding gun owners for exercising their fundamental right to keep and bear arms."
The gun tax, which takes effect April 1, was passed as part of Cook County's $2.9 billion spending plan for 2013.
As part of the budget, commissioners also approved a $1 tax increase on each pack of cigarettes, making the county's $6.67-a-pack tax the second-most expensive in the country, behind New York at $6.86, NBCChicago.com reported. The new tax will push the price of a pack to more than $10 when it goes into effect March 1.
A gambling tax increase that commissioners also approved will impose $1,000 annually on slot machines in the county and $200 on video gambling machines. Rivers Casino in Des Plaines would be affected as well as establishments that approved video gaming.
The Rev. Mark Harris endorsed a Republican candidate for the state Supreme Court during his sermon Oct. 7 at First Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C.
By M. Alex Johnson, NBC News
With the presidential election a dead heat and many other races too close to call, hundreds of religious leaders nationwide are urging their congregations to vote for a specific candidate. They break the law when they do so — that's the point — but it's unclear whether there's any real penalty for pastors who make such endorsements from the pulpit.
About 1,600 pastors across the country violated a 58-year-old ban on political endorsements by churches in October by explicitly backing political candidates in their Sunday sermons, according to the Alliance Defending Freedom of Scottsdale, Ariz., a conservative Christian legal organization behind a campaign called Pulpit Freedom Sunday.
The 1954 law they are challenging prohibits charitable groups, including most churches, from making candidate endorsements, but doesn't bar ministers, priests, rabbis and imams from speaking out on other ballot issues, like voter initiatives, or organizing get-out-the-vote drives and education efforts around elections themselves.
The alliance is seeking to force a court showdown over the constitutionality of the law, violation of which can cost churches their tax-exempt status. Since Oct. 7, the original Pulpit Freedom Day, many pastors who participated in the protest have posted their remarks online or sent them to the Internal Revenue Service, essentially daring the agency charged with enforcing the prohibition to put up or shut up.
So far, the IRS has done the latter.
The Alliance Defending Freedom asserts that it's working to further the rights of all religious groups, but it's an explicitly Christian organization, with a heavy representation of evangelical members and leaders. One clue to its philosophy is that it made it Pulpit Freedom "Sunday" — choosing the Christian Sabbath, instead of more broadly embracing the Jewish Sabbath (Saturday) and the Muslim day of worship (Friday).
So it's no surprise that an unscientific survey of the posted endorsements indicates that they skewed overwhelmingly in favor of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, as in these representative samples:
In a guest sermon at Calvary Chapel in Chino Hills, Calif., Wayne Gruden, a professor and theologian at Phoenix Seminary in Arizona, recommended that "all citizens" vote for Romney "and Republicans in general" (the endorsement begins at 59:58):
Wayne Gruden, a professor and theologian at Phoenix Seminary in Arizona, endorses Mitt Romney.
Pastor Ken Redmond of Abundant Life Worship Center in Midland, Texas, told his congregation they shouldn't vote for President Barack Obama, saying, "Here is your choice: a Mormon or a Muslim" (the remarks begin at 33:17):
As of Friday, none of the hundreds of pastors who took part in the protest reported hearing back from the government. In fact, the Alliance Defending Freedom says, only one of the churches that have taken part in Pulpit Freedom Sundays over the last five years has been the target of IRS action, and that case was dropped shortly after the IRS lost a separate legal ruling almost four years ago.
The Internal Revenue Code specifies that all section 501(c)(3) organizations are "absolutely prohibited" from taking part in, contributing to or making any statement "in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office."
But enforcement appears to have halted completely in early 2009 after Living Word Christian Center of Brooklyn Park, Minn., successfully appealed an audit that the IRS launched after its pastor endorsed Republican Rep. Michelle Bachmann for re-election. The judge ruled (.pdf) that the IRS was technically violating its own regulations in deciding whether to audit churches for banned political activities — because the official making that decision wasn't high enough on the Treasury Department's organization chart.
The IRS, however, isn't acknowledging that it has stopped enforcing the ban on candidate endorsements by officials of 501(c)3 charitable organizations.
Dean Patterson, a spokesman for the IRS, said the official "misspoke," adding: "The IRS continues to run a balanced program that follows up on potential non-compliance, while ensuring the appropriate oversight and review to determine that compliance activities are necessary and appropriate."
Noting that it's barred by law from discussing individual tax cases, the IRS declined NBC News' request for documentation showing that it has taken any action against politicking from the pulpit since then.
But Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, said it's clear that the agency is sidestepping the issue.
"We surmise the IRS has shut down all its church audits," Stanley said. As time goes on, he added, "It may become clear that the IRS has taken the position that it will not censor a pastor."
(As it happens, there is a legal way for churches to endorse candidates and still not pay taxes, by registering with the IRS under a different section of the tax code, 501(c)4. But nearly all religious institutions reject that choice because individuals who give money to 501(c)4 groups aren't allowed to claim tax deductions for their donations. Donations to 501(c)3 groups are deductible.)
A matter of politics, not constitutionality While the issue is often cast in terms of separation of church and state, the prohibition on candidate endorsements is a political one, not a constitutional one. If anything, "from a constitutional perspective ... American churches have had every right to endorse or oppose political candidates" since 1819, James Davidson, a prominent religion scholar, wrote in a landmark 1998 paper (.pdf) in the Review of Religious Research.
That was when the Supreme Court ruled — in a case involving banks, not churches — that the federal government had the power to limit taxation of specific enterprises in furtherance of the public good, quoting Daniel Webster's argument that "the power to tax is the power to destroy." Subsequent law extended that philosophy to establish that charitable groups could seek exemption from taxation.
The prohibition on candidate endorsements comes from a different source. It dates only to 1954, and like the 1819 decision, it applies to all 501(c)3 charitable groups, not just churches. Democratic Sen. Lyndon Johnson of Texas inserted it into the tax code as he was fighting off a re-election challenge backed by tax-exempt political foundations that historians have linked with the anti-Communist witch hunts of Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
The measure passed with little debate. Its effect was to muzzle religious leaders, even though "there is no evidence that a religious element played a significant part in Johnson's decision," Patrick L. O'Daniel, an adjunct professor at the University of Texas Law School, wrote in a 2001 reconstruction of the bill's passage in the Boston College Law Review.
Whether Johnson intended it that way or not, religious leaders have argued that the provision is an unacceptable stifling of their constitutional rights.
"This is about restoring biblical authority and a constitutional right for pastors to speak freely from the pulpit without any fear of the government on cultural and societal issues from a biblical perspective. And that includes commenting on the positions of the candidates," the Rev. Dann E. Travis, pastor of Crossroads of Life Church in Binghampton, N.Y., said to cheers from the congregation last week.
The Rev. Rob Rotola, who took part in Pulpit Freedom Sunday at Word of Life Ministries in Wichita, Kan., told NBC station KSN: "The concept of separation of church and state meant that the state was to keep out of the affairs of the church, not that the church was supposed to be silent about things about the state."
Pulpit Freedom SundayMinistries taking part in Pulpit Freedom Sunday, Oct. 7
- Baptist/Southern Baptist 409
- Assemblies of God 36
- Nazarene 34
- Church of God 32
- Presbyterian 17
- Lutheran 12
- Church of Christ 11
- Catholic 10
- Allliance Church 7
- Anglican 4
- Messianic Jewish 3
- Nondenominational/ unaffiliated/other 993
Sources: Alliance Defending Freedom, NBC News research
But other religious figures see a political angle — specifically, a conservative and evangelical angle — behind the challenge to the law.
The Rev. Barry Lynn, a minister in President Barack Obama's United Church of Christ and executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the Alliance Defending Freedom was hiding behind "a fiction that there's a war against Christianity." The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., he said, managed to preach about politics almost every day of his adult life without ever endorsing a political candidate.
"It's time to get serious about this, because we could end up with a corruption not only of the political process but of the integrity of the genuine prophetic message of churches," Lynn said in a recent interview on State of Belief Radio.
The Rev. Fester Coffee-Prose, youth minister at First Christian Church in Tyler, Texas, also objected, saying politics should be left to politicians, not pastors.
"While we might take stands on certain issues, when it comes to the candidates, the church should be a place where people of diverse backgrounds and diverse beliefs gather," he told NBC station KETK. "I don't necessarily believe that we should be endorsing any one candidate from the pulpit."
Also of concern to some religious leaders is the alliance leadership's connections to conservative organizations and causes: Its president, Alan Sears, was director of Attorney General Edwin Meese's Commission on Pornography during the Reagan administration, and other board members represent the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, the anti-abortion activist group Susan B. Anthony List and the conservative evangelical ministry Focus on the Family.
What pastors say
In a survey of 1,000 Protestant ministers, LifeWay Research, the polling arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, found that:
- 87 percent believe pastors shouldn't endorse candidates from the pulpit
- 44 percent have endorsed candidates, but only outside their church roles
- 78 percent disagreed that this election has been "too religious"
Source: LifeWay Research, May 2012. Margin of error: plus or minus 3.2 percentage points.
Pulpit Freedom Sunday itself was similarly overwhelmingly Christian, with an emphasis on evangelicalism. Working from a list of ministries that signed up in advance, NBC News tabulated that 98 percent were evangelical or otherwise Protestant ministries.
Just 10 Catholic priests took part, defying the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' directive that church leaders "are to avoid endorsing or opposing candidates or telling people how to vote."
Only four Anglican ministers signed up. No imams or traditional rabbis were listed — the three synagogues on the roster are Messianic Jewish congregations, which proclaim the divinity of Jesus.
In a statement, the Council on American-Islamic Relations said it had reminded imams and khateebs (those who give the sermon during Friday prayers) that tax-exempt mosques "cannot explicitly or implicitly endorse candidates." Likewise, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs pointed to its standing directive that "organizations may not rate, endorse or oppose candidates for public office."
The alliance, nonetheless, says its campaign is about a larger question.
"Eventually, we'll have a test case about the constitutionality of the Johnson Amendment," Stanley said. "The IRS has really left pastors and churches no option if they believe they have the right to speak freely from their pulpit."
When Walter Samaszko Jr. died at his home in Carson City, Nev., he had $200 in a bank account. But as officials later discovered, Samaszko had about $7 million stored neatly around his home, the Nevada Appeal reported.
In late June, neighbors called authorities because of a smell emanating from Samaszko’s home. He was a recluse who had told them he hated the government and feared getting shots, but still, it had been a while since they had seen him, according to the Appeal.
In came the cleanup crews, which discovered boxes of gold in the garage.
“At that point, we took the house apart,” said Carson City clerk-recorder Alan Glover.
They found gold coins and bullion, tiny dos-pesos, $20 gold pieces, Austrian ducats, Kruggerrands and English Sovereigns dating to the 1840s – enough gold to fill two wheelbarrows.
Samaszko and his mother had lived in the three-bedroom home since the 1970s, which is around the time they started collecting gold. Glover told the Appeal that the two kept detailed records of the gold they had purchased.
As for who can lay claim to the riches -- Glover said the Internal Revenue Service will take a sizable amount in taxes -- about $750,000 -- and that the rest will likely go to a first cousin, a substitute teacher in San Rafael, Calif., who is Samaszko's only relative as far as authorities can tell.
The Las Vegas Sun reported that Glover's office found her using a list of people who had attended Samaszko's mother's funeral.
Marge Youngs of Toledo, Ohio, says Social Security makes up most of her income. She is worried that the program will be in trouble when her children and grandchildren need it.
By STEPHEN OHLEMACHER, AP
WASHINGTON - As millions of baby boomers flood Social Security with applications for benefits, the program's $2.7 trillion surplus is starting to look small.
For nearly three decades Social Security produced big surpluses, collecting more in taxes from workers than it paid in benefits to retirees, disabled workers, spouses and children. The surpluses also helped mask the size of the budget deficit being generated by the rest of the federal government.
Those days are over.
Since 2010, Social Security has been paying out more in benefits than it collects in taxes, adding to the urgency for Congress to address the program's long-term finances.
"To me, urgent doesn't begin to describe it," said Chuck Blahous, one of the public trustees who oversee Social Security. "I would say we're somewhere between critical and too late to deal with it."
The Social Security trustees project the surplus will be gone in 2033. Unless Congress acts, Social Security would only collect enough tax revenue each year to pay about 75 percent of benefits, triggering an automatic reduction.
Lawmakers from both political parties say they want to avoid such a dramatic benefit cut for people who have retired and might not have the means to make up the lost income. Still, that scenario is more than two decades away, which is why many in Congress are willing to put off changes.
But once the surplus is spent, the annual funding gaps start off big and grow fast, which could make them hard to rein in if Congress procrastinates.
The projected shortfall in 2033 is $623 billion, according to the trustees' latest report. It reaches $1 trillion in 2045 and nearly $7 trillion in 2086, the end of a 75-year period used by Social Security's number crunchers because it covers the retirement years of just about everyone working today.
Add up 75 years' worth of shortfalls and you get an astonishing figure: $134 trillion. Adjusted for inflation, that's $30.5 trillion in 2012 dollars, or eight times the size of this year's entire federal budget.
In present value terms, the Social Security Administration says the shortfall is $8.6 trillion. That means the agency would need to invest $8.6 trillion today, and have it pay returns of 2.9 percent above inflation for the next 75 years, to produce enough money to cover the shortfall.
That's the rate of return Social Security expects to get from its trust funds. The problem, of course, is that Social Security doesn't have an extra $8.6 trillion to invest.
Social Security Commissioner Michael J. Astrue said he is frustrated that little has been done to solve a problem that is only going to get harder to fix as 2033 approaches. If changes are done soon, they can be spread out over time, perhaps sparing current retirees while giving workers time to increase their savings.
"It won't be easy but it's just going to get harder the longer they wait," Astrue said.
There is no consensus in Washington on how pressing the problem is.
President Barack Obama created a deficit-reduction commission in 2010 but didn't embrace its plan for Social Security: raising the retirement age, reducing benefits for medium- and high-income workers and raising the cap on the amount of wages subject to the payroll tax, all very gradually.
The issue has been largely absent from this year's presidential election. Neither Obama nor his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, has made it a significant part of the campaign.
Blahous, a Republican, warns that the magnitude of the problem is becoming so great that "Social Security's days as a self-financing program are numbered" if Congress doesn't act in the next few years. Democrat Robert Reischauer, Social Security's other public trustee, is less dire in his predictions but has told Congress that it needs to act within five years.
Others express less urgency.
"I would like to see Congress move on this tomorrow but we do have 22 years before there is any cut in Social Security benefits," said Sen. Bernie Sanders, a liberal independent from Vermont who heads the Senate Social Security caucus. "Compared to other crises — the collapse of the middle class, real wages falling for American workers, 50 million people having no health insurance — how would I rate the Social Security situation? Nowhere near as serious as these and many other problems."
AARP, the nation's most powerful lobbying group for older Americans, agrees.
"I'm not suggesting we need to wait 20 years but we do have time to make changes to Social Security so that we can pay the benefits we promised," said David Certner, AARP's legislative policy director. "Let's face it. Relative to a lot of other things right now, Social Security is in pretty good shape."
Social Security is financed by a 12.4 percent tax on wages. Workers pay half and their employers pay the other half. Self-employed workers pay the full amount.
The tax is applied to the first $110,100 of a worker's wages, a cap that rises each year with inflation. For 2011 and 2012, the tax rate for employees was reduced to 4.2 percent but is scheduled to return to 6.2 percent in January.
Social Security's finances are being hit by a wave of demographics as aging baby boomers reach retirement, leaving relatively fewer workers behind to pay into the system. In 1960, there were 4.9 workers paying Social Security taxes for each person getting benefits. Today, there are about 2.8 workers for each beneficiary, a ratio that will drop to 1.9 workers by 2035, according to projections by the Congressional Budget Office.
About 56 million people collect Social Security benefits, and that is projected to grow to 91 million in 2035. Monthly benefits average $1,235 for retired workers and $1,111 for disabled workers.
Marge Youngs, a 77-year-old widow from Toledo, Ohio, said Social Security makes up most of her income. She's reasonably sure that Social Security's financial problems won't affect her benefits but worries about her children and grandchildren.
"We might not have to worry about it, but it's the next generation coming up that will," Youngs said.
Corryn Grace Freeman, 22, a recent college graduate from Columbia, Md., said she understands the federal government must address its growing budget problems but worries that her generation will be "penalized" for being born late.
"It's like we're paying for the current elderly, we have to save more for ourselves, and we don't get any help in the future," Freeman said. "And not to mention we're facing one of the toughest job markets that the U.S. has been faced with."
Slam Dunks, Fireworks & Eagles Super PAC co-founders Daniel Bassali and Winslow Marshall discuss how they're raising money for beer in an effort to bring Congress together to reach a decision on the budget.
Treasury Department investigators say the Internal Revenue Service is looking the other way instead of rooting out fraud when people apply for taxpayer identification numbers.
The ID numbers are used instead of a Social Security number by non-citizens who have to file tax returns. Almost 3 million returns were filed under the program last year.
The Treasury Department's inspector general for tax administration says instead of worrying about fraud, IRS managers focused on how many applications they could process and did away with fraud-detection measures that had been working.
All applications for ID numbers are processed at an IRS center in Austin, Texas.
IRS officials responding to the report say they've taken steps to rectify the problem and are reviewing other possible changes.