There are a good dozen private suppliers charging anywhere from $6 per return to $70, with market leaders QuickTax and UFile averaging a base price of about $15 (see Wikipedia's list of NETFILE suppliers and prices).
Why do we individual Canadians have to pay?
CRA's answer is: "Development, distribution, and the subsequent ongoing maintenance of free tax software would represent a tremendous expenditure for the CRA. It would also require a continuous support network to assist users of the product. Regardless of our efforts to provide free software, some Canadians will always prefer to purchase products from the private sector market, as many of these products offer tax-planning tools and are often compatible with home accounting software."
My answer is, as the Scots say,rubbish! Here's why I think everyone would be better off, CRA and average Joe Canadian NETFILEr with free tax prep software provided by the CRA.
1) Paper tax forms are free and all it costs is a stamp to mail them in. The precedent, the starting point of the argument and the onus is on CRA to continue that way.
2) Private software makes tax calculation errors, as I pointed out in my previous two posts. This result happens with software that CRA has tested and certified. We and CRA cannot be sure tax reports are accurate. Let us keep in mind that CRA makes up and interprets the rules so private companies are necessarily using second-hand knowledge of tax rules with attendant misinterpretation possible.
3) Cost to taxpayers - CBC' Netfiling 2009 reports from a CRA source that 4.3 million returns were filed in 2008 using NETFILE. At $15 a return, that is c.$65 million every year. That's wasted money in an economic sense. No one is fed, clothed, housed or entertained in the process of filling in a tax return. On the other hand, the CRA could fund an awful lot of software development using that money. Anything less than $65 million a year would be a net gain. Some of the existing private software packages are built by what are obviously very small companies. A basic package should be very cheap to build.
4) Cost to CRA - The indirect costs to CRA of the present system include:
- extra resources to deal with the certification process, building and running test suites, communicating back and forth with the companies
- extra resources to fix returns that are incorrect despite the certification process
- lost revenue from higher non-compliance and effort to deal with non-compliance using private packages. CBC reported last August a CRA finding that people using NETFILE and software understated their taxes by almost $570 million. Though the apparent main cause of non-compliance - absence of receipts - would certainly not be eliminated by CRA-supplied software, there would certainly be a "big brother is watching you" deterrent effect. The vast majority of people who cheat, i.e. putting aside those who are saints or incorrigibly immoral, do so because they think they can get get away with it. If a person were to be using the official free CRA web browser program that they know is hosted on the CRA's own servers, I bet they would be a lot less likely to try overstating expenses. Even a 10% reduction in non-compliance would give the CRA $57 million more in annual funding for building a free tax prep package.
6) Other countries offer free tax software - like the UK, Australia and the USA, though the latter program appears to be income-limited and offered jointly with private companies
7) Privacy and security vulnerability of web-based packages - Only the CRA has a right to an individual's tax data. Using a commercial web preparation service exposes that data to an extra step and an extra location where that data might be compromised. No doubt all the companies claim that their security procedures are 100% bullet-proof but one cannot be sure since CRA does not audit them and no one else does either in any systematic way. I can guarantee if it is not measured and tested it not as good as it can be.
In certain cases I discovered in doing my review of the various web packages, the license and corporate connections of the companies mean that a Canadian's tax data might end up being disclosed to US authorities. In its anti-terrorism efforts, the US government is not shy about going after financial data and US laws are far-reaching.
What a Free CRA Package Could Look Like:
- basic forms only fill in the boxes and add them up or calculate schedules and forms automatically from raw data
- could be fillable pdf or web package - to avoid desktop PC compatibility issues and support
- no optimization functions - if people want that let them use a private package, which I would see being allowed to continue being offered so that people have a choice to pay if they think it's better or easier than CRA's
- help consists of links to each line item in the CRA guides as a base but CRA should include links to its own suggestions for deductions and other assistance to help ensure people claim what they are due