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The needless tax-prep paper chase

People line up at 9:40 p.m. Monday at

People line up at 9:40 p.m. Monday at the Hicksville post office to file their federal income taxes on tax deadline day. Credit: Newsday / Lane Filler

At 8:30 p.m. Monday, the scene at the Hicksville Post Office on West John Street was about what you’d expect if we held an annual festival to glorify sadness, anger and fear.

Monday was the last day to send 2018 tax returns and money owed without a penalty. And Hicksville, open until 9 p.m. Monday through Friday, is the only post office on Long Island that stays open so late. It’s a magnet for patrons trying to get a procrastinated postmark.

Police directed traffic. Frantic filers tried to find parking. And as I commiserated and waited to get the time stamp of virtue on my own envelope, I imagined the glorious day when this madness ends.

There is no reason for most of us to file returns, and no justification for most of us computing our own liability. It’s crazy.

Imagine that, each month, all credit card users had to take a blank form and list everything they bought with their cards along with what they paid, then attach a check for the total owed: “Honey, how much was dinner at T.J. Taterskins? I remember ordering the first 11 martinis and a small bowl of queso, but the next six hours are a blur. I can’t find the receipt. I know you destroyed a stuffed moose head for ‘eyeballing’ me, but what does something like that cost?”

This would be a silly way to figure out how much you owe, since the Visa people are great at adding it up and billing for it.

But for most of us, filling out our own tax returns and hunting down our own documentation makes just as little sense.

Our employers tell the governments how much we earn, and how much tax we pay to each level of government, how much we spend on health insurance and tax-advantaged retirement and health-savings accounts. Our banks tell the government how much mortgage interest we pay, and often how much property tax we pay.

Why does the government then ask us to tell it the same things, and send it copies of the same forms our employers and banks send, and make it all so complicated that many of us must hire help to do it?

And all those deductions! Does your bedroom count as a home office if you’ve been taking care of business? (No.) Are long pants a work expense if you wear only cargo shorts at all other times? (No.)

It’s a process that’s become even more unnecessary now, when thanks to the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, the Joint Committee on Taxation estimates 88 percent of the nation’s 150 million tax filers won’t itemize federal returns.

These tax changes, pushed by President Donald Trump, had mixed results when it comes to how much we pay. But the combination of doubling the standard deduction to $24,000 for couples and limiting the state and local property tax deduction to $10,000 means few people have enough tax deductions to itemize. So employers should find it easy to figure out what employees will owe and deduct it, and governments should find it easy to see if we paid the wrong amount, and send us a bill or a check.

Changing how we pay taxes for 2018 without changing how we file was just incompetence.

Many taxpayers in many countries do not have to file. In England, where the correct amount is generally deducted from paychecks, 90 percent of taxpayers don’t file. According to the Brookings Institution’s Tax Policy Center, at least 36 countries permit return-free filing for some workers.

Most of us pay taxes based on withholding brackets provided by the government, and withholding forms we fill out. The charts should be right and the forms should ask the proper questions to determine how much we need to pay. If something goes wrong and we end up paying too much or too little, let us know. Otherwise, leave us alone.

Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.