[Viewpoint] We need a tax commissioner now

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[Viewpoint] We need a tax commissioner now

‘Let’s try hard to be able to say proudly we are working at the National Tax Service when we go to alumni meetings,” said tax commissioner Suh Young-taik in 1991 at a meeting with senior officials at the agency. After that, the NTS set out to eliminate deep-rooted and irrational practices that conventional wisdom at the time said were here to stay. The bureaucracy would chew up and spit out anyone going after sacred cows. It was, for instance, prohibited to visit stores that the office supervised without an order to do so from the head of the tax office. Of course, anyone who received bribes would be fired immediately. But there was a loophole.

If someone had no choice but to take money from a taxpayer, the money would be saved and collected in a special account. Around 300 million won ($233,723) was saved at the end of the year and it was donated to a charity. The NTS selected six companies that gave money to tax collectors and investigated their affairs.

There are still many problems in the NTS. People say, only half in jest: “The army, the police and the NTS have the national networks and more than 20,000 members each. Soldiers and policemen are easy to control because they put on their uniforms. But as the workers at the NTS do not wear uniforms it is difficult to control them.”

These days, people have critical views of the NTS. Two former commissioners were arrested on charges of corruption and receiving bribes. Since former Commissioner Han Sang-ryul stepped down amid corruption allegations, the post has been empty. That’s unprecedented.

To make matters worse, prosecutors recently raided the NTS in connection with their investigation into the Park Yeon-cha scandal. Simply put: The atmosphere at the NTS is horrible. Employees wonder how it has gone this far. Many people remember the scandal that Han caused by giving a painting as a bribe to a former commissioner. They don’t even know the NTS is still missing its commissioner.

Why has the hiring of a new commissioner been delayed? There seems to be one reason. The story goes back to when Kang Man-soo was the minister of strategy and finance and Han was the commissioner of the NTS. The crew upstairs suggested forming a commission for personnel affairs to recommend a candidate and restructure the tax agency thoroughly.

The ministry asked the Blue House to form a task force and a U.S.-based consulting firm hired to draw up measures to advance our national tax administration. As a result, a drastic measure was proposed. Regional tax offices were to close. Instead local tax offices that gather taxes were to be merged to form large tax offices. The enlarged tax offices would have branch offices under them. And an investigation office was to be created.

As the measure was too drastic, some worried that the entire structure would crumble. If the morale of employees dropped in the middle of an economic crisis, it would be difficult to secure tax revenues. Recently, some have maintained that an investigation office must be created separately while the NTS remains. In the middle of the controversy, Kang and Han left.

The appointment of a commissioner has been delayed due to fear of shaking up the whole structure. Some were mentioned as candidates for the commissioner’s seat but they did not make the final grade. There was worry that if a new commissioner was named before reform was completed, he would likely be blamed later for everything.

One can understand the complicated situation.

However, the NTS is regarded as one of the four most powerful national agencies, along with the prosecutors’ office, the police and the National Information Service. The NTS is in charge of a state budget and conducts tax investigations for political, social and economic reasons. It is a problem to have the post of NTS commissioner empty for nearly four months. Without a commissioner, important decisions get put off.

The annual meeting of heads of local tax offices is usually held at the beginning of every year but was instead held in April this year. The posts of some directors are still empty. In regional tax offices, often employees are investigated for corruption. It’s a serious problem if the discipline of the lower levels of the structure weakens and tax administration affairs become disorderly. And it would be even more worrisome if more serious problems are now being created.

Some at the Blue House say there is no problem because the NTS is operating just fine under the director’s supervision. However, the NTS is like an army that works in a systematic, organized way under the commissioner’s command. Perhaps nobody knows the agency handles only basic affairs because there is no one to take charge. Few will deny the importance of reforming the NTS. But if a new commissioner is hired after the blueprint of reform is completed, opportunity costs will be too high. Now is the time to choose the right person.

*The writer is an economic news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Park Eui-joon
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