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A small group of Republican lawmakers and indignant taxpayers gathered in front of the Department of Revenue on Thursday to protest the roughly 100,000 individual tax refunds still in state hands.
"The citizens did not volunteer to lend their money to the state to help balance the budget," said Rep. Art Pope, a Raleigh Republican. "It's just wrong to play games with tax refunds."
Others were even more critical. Rep. Russell Capps, another Raleigh Republican, said he thinks the Department of Revenue intentionally withheld individual refunds into the new fiscal year to help balance a tight budget in June.
Revenue Department officials have said they purposely withheld $ 20 million in corporate refunds, at the request of state budget director Marvin Dorman, but said they did no such thing with individual returns.
"In my opinion, it's a crime," Capps said. "It's a criminal act."
As evidence, Capps cited an case in which the department immediately processed a refund for one of his constituents after he inquired about it. "Within 30 minutes I had a response," he said.
Revenue Secretary Muriel Offerman on Thursday stood by her explanation that bad weather in January, computer problems and a labor shortage all contributed to the delays.
"From time to time, as citizens give us specific information, we can walk it through," Offerman said. "But that does not mean that they were being delayed purposely at all."
Capps also criticized Gov. Jim Hunt for not doing a better job managing the Department of Revenue. "The governor doesn't take responsibility for decisions like this," Capps said.
Hunt spokesman Tad Boggs countered: "The governor has made it clear to the department that he wants them to use all necessary means to process these returns as quickly as possible. If these folks have useful suggestions on how to do the job better, we would welcome them."
Other Republican lawmakers on hand were Rep. Leo Daughtry of Smithfield and Rep. Richard Morgan of Moore County. Several members of the taxpayer group, Citizens for a Sound Economy, also attended. One of them, Barbara Howe, is the Libertarian Party's candidate for governor this year.
Offerman also issued a statement saying the department had reduced the number of outstanding individual refunds to 94,000. To speed the process the department has added 25 workers to assist taxpayers, moved 39 employees from other areas to pore over returns with errors and expanded its operating hours. She said she still hopes all checks will be out by mid-August.
Officials have estimated that the amount of interest to be paid on late or amended refunds this year will exceed $ 15 million, at least $ 5 million more than last year.