by John McGown Jr.
Reprinted from Tax Notes State, January 27, 2020, p.349 ------
Chairman Tom Harris has been at the Idaho State Tax Commission since May 2019, and he’s still learning how the agency works. He’s a quick study, but he already had the knowledge and experience Gov. Brad Little (R) wanted.
“When the governor’s office asked me to be the chairman, I told them I wasn’t a tax guy,” the retired Western States Equipment president said. “They told me they weren’t looking for a tax guy, and that’s what they got.”
It turns out Harris’s lack of tax expertise hasn’t been a problem. His own skill set more than makes up for it.
“I know how to run a large organization — a complex organization — and there are a lot of similarities between the tax commission and Western States,” Harris said. “We had five businesses under one roof that you had to wrangle and keep harmony in. And the tax commission is much the same. There’s a lot going on, and you have to keep all the pieces in mesh.”
Little appointed him in part because the governor’s office and the Legislature lacked confidence in the tax commission. However, Harris was pleased by what he found when he started the job. “I thought the agency was going to be in disarray, and I expected a lot of dysfunction here. But what I found was hundreds of dedicated people that work hard for the state of Idaho and do the right thing every day.”
Harris came to realize that communication was the biggest problem.
“If the reality is, we’re in pretty good shape but the perception is something different, we have a communication gap. We’re trying to work on the communication to the governor’s office. We’ve been much more connected to them and keep them apprised of what we’re doing. We’re also working to keep the Legislature up to speed.”
Harris said several changes to the commission’s organizational structure in recent years have improved the agency. They included separating the audit division from the collection unit and appeals from tax policy. Commissioners created the taxpayer resources unit to improve communications, customer service, and stakeholder relations.
“The changes were made to better serve the taxpayer and to remove the perceived conflicts within the organization,” Harris said. “A lot of pieces were put in place that I get to take advantage of that somebody else did. I can’t take any credit for it.”
Commission stakeholders generally seem to like the agency’s customer service improvements. Respondents to fall 2019 surveys of taxpayers, tax practitioners, local elected and taxing district officials, and state elected officials — primarily legislators — gave the commission high marks for being courteous, knowledgeable and fair.