Wednesday, April 12, 2000 Missoulian Editorial Counting today, there are six more days to get income taxes done and mailed. No pressure, mind you. Just a reminder.

There aren't too many changes to the tax code for 1999. Thank goodness. Tax laws and regulations already fill 17,000 pages, and the Internal Revenue Service has more than 700 tax forms for various special circumstances and needs.

Set aside time, though. The IRS figures that it will take average taxpayers 13 hours to complete their 1040s this year, up an hour from last year. Add another few hours to fill in the Montana forms.

No wonder so many people turn to professionals to help. Americans spent $134 billion in 1998 on tax preparation, according to estimates from the Clinton Administration.

Don't expect the next president to feel sorry for us and fight for tax simplification. Tax reform in general seems to be at the bottom of the pile of concerns among voters: Last month's Battleground poll found that just 6 percent of those sampled listed taxes as the single most important issue for the next administration. Taxes ranked behind moral values (18 percent), education (13 percent), Social Security and Medicare (11 percent) and health care (10 percent).

One reason why there's so little furor over tax-preparation burdens is because everyone but the very rich ­ seniors, the working poor and especially the middle class ­ is getting some benefit from the past few years of tax code tweaking. Many families can sell homes and keep the profits. Some families get a tax credit of $500 for each child under age 17, up from $400 in 1998. More Americans qualify for individual retirement accounts. Many students who paid interest on qualified education loans get a break, deducting a higher proportion of the interest paid. The "death-tax" exemption is inching up, from $625,000 in 1998 to $650,000 in 1999 to $1 million in 2006. More small-business men and women can deduct more of the cost of their health insurance premiums.

"I have given up on reforming the income tax," said Texas Republican Bill Archer of the House Ways and Means Committee. After every recent reform in recent years, "the code is more complicated than before we started."

While we talk about tax cuts and surpluses, keep tax simplification on the table, too.

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