The Internal Revenue Service spent millions of dollars on public opinion polling, office furniture and other items last year, including an $8,000 stair climber, and Thomas the Tank Engine wristbands.
The Senate's top tax lawmaker, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, sent a letter to IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, calling out the expenditure in the wake of complaints by the agency that it lacks the funding to provide adequate customer service and prompt refunds.
"Since your agency continues to have problems prioritizing the use of its budget, which has reduced slightly in recent years after historic growth late in the last decade, I write to offer some courtesy suggestions on spending that might be curtailed," Hatch wrote to Koskinen.
The spending borders on the ridiculous — including plush animals, toy footballs, kazoos, bathtub toy boats, and Thomas the Tank Engine rubber wristbands for managers' meetings.
It also includes very costly expenditures, including $4.3 million on market research and public opinion polling and $4 million on office furniture, in addition to the stair climber.
The letter to Koskinen comes in the wake of news reports that the IRS has been unable to respond to the flood of pre-tax day customer service calls and a threat that refunds could be delayed thanks to reduced funding at the agency.
"Several news articles have detailed stories of IRS employees turning away those seeking help with their tax filings and hanging up on callers — something your agency bizarrely calls 'courtesy disconnects,' " Hatch wrote to Koskinen.
Earlier this month, Koskinen warned in a Brookings Institution speech that the the IRS budget must be increased or tax compliance may "erode."
The 2015 IRS budget is $10.9 billion, a reduction of $345.6 million below fiscal year 2014 and $1.5 billion below President Obama's request.
According to appropriators, IRS funding is now less than the fiscal 2008 total provided to the agency.
The IRS released a statement to the Washington Examiner below:
The IRS continues our efforts to find savings and efficiencies wherever we can. It’s important to note that our furniture purchases last year were essential in our efforts to combine and reduce office space, leading to more than $15 million in space-reduction savings for taxpayers. Since 2012, the IRS has reduced rent costs by more than $47 million each year.
The IRS also notes that many of the spending items the agency has been criticized for date back several years. IRS policies have been overhauled in these areas. For example, the 2013 TIGTA report on decorative items covers Fiscal Years 2010 and 2011. The IRS agreed years ago these were not appropriate expenditures and banned spending on such items.