Photos by WSU Photo Services
It sounds like the punchline to a joke: Take a bunch of tax attorneys, CPAs, and business people and put them in a room with state tax regulators. What do you get?
The Washington State Tax Conference. Each August, the conference brings about 200 people to WSU Pullman for two days of unfettered discussion about taxes. Nothing is off limits as participants hash over Washington’s tax system, which generates more than $20 billion in annual revenues to pay for state services.
“This isn’t like other tax conferences,” says Darcy Kooiker, Ernst & Young LLP indirect tax managing director. “We don’t just talk about plain vanilla topics. We talk about the juicy, meaty issues that often don’t have clear answers.”
For the tax-minded, that includes topics like: What constitutes gross income? And, how will Washington’s new capital gains tax be administered?
Now in its third year, the conference is a partnership between the state Department of Revenue (DOR) and the Hoops Institute of Taxation Research and Policy at the WSU Carson College of Business. The conference promotes understanding among stakeholders who often have opposing viewpoints.
Many of the conference’s participants would normally meet in adversarial situations, such as tax litigation or enforcement actions. As an academic institute, Hoops provides the neutral ground for the tough discussions, says Gil Brewer, DOR’s senior assistant director of tax policy.
“If the agency said, ‘Hey, the Department of Revenue is having a tax conference,’ it would naturally raise suspicion from the CPAs and tax attorneys,” he says. “The Hoops Tax Institute’s involvement reinforces people’s willingness to participate.”
The institute was established in 2012 by the late Howard (’50 Hosp. Mgmt.) and Billie Hoops. The couple traveled extensively during Howard Hoops’s career with the American Red Cross, and he noticed few people understood taxes or their role in government.
“Part of his vision was to increase public awareness of tax issues,” says Jeff Gramlich, accounting professor and director of the Hoops Tax Institute. “We’re proud to further that vision by hosting the conference at WSU.”
A complicated tax system
The Department of Revenue administers about 60 different taxes, including Washington’s sales and use taxes. The revenues collected generate more than 90 percent of Washington’s general fund, which pays for education, social services, corrections, public safety, and other services.
“Even when you live in the world of taxes, the system still seems complicated,” says Vikki Smith, the agency’s director. “Businesses need a fair tax system they can understand, and one that’s sound, so we can administer it. This conference hits all those different factors.”
Smith encourages key DOR employees to attend, so they can hear directly from the CPAs and attorneys representing Washington companies on tax issues. About half of the conference attendees are from DOR, and Washington companies also participate.
“It gives us insight into what the business community and taxpayers are thinking,” Brewer says. “In this type of free-flowing conversation, we’re not advocating for a particular position; they’re not trying to get a specific result. We’re just talking taxes.”
Kooiker’s favorite conference session is titled, “Ask the department anything about tax policy.” “It’s fantastic the DOR officials are willing to tackle those thorny issues,” she says. “It really opens up the dialogue in a less guarded setting.”
Kooiker also appreciates the after-hours conversation. “So much gets discussed when you’re sitting around the hotel and chatting informally,” she says. “Everyone wants a tax system that is easy to comply with and audit. This conference provides a forum for taxpayers, tax representatives, and the DOR to work together toward that goal.”
Opportunities for tax research
The conference also provides opportunities for academic research. A Carson College doctoral student recently studied DOR’s selection criteria for tax audits—an idea that grew out of the conference.
“He evaluated whether our audit selection produced what we were expecting,” Brewer says. “That’s an important question for us. Working with the Hoops Tax Institute gives us access to academic researchers who can provide a neutral analysis.”
During its relatively short tenure, Gramlich says the Washington State Tax Conference has built a strong reputation. “I’m excited about what this partnership will create in the future,” he says, “and how it will benefit the state of Washington and its taxpayers.”