The Vermont paradox: The taxpayer advocate is a state employee

By Yaël Ossowski | Vermont Watchdog

With an office and desk housed within the Vermont Department of Taxes, Gloria Hobson is not your average salaried government employee.

In fact, based upon her job description and title, one would argue her work serves as the ultimate paradox: a “taxpayer advocate” with a state government paycheck.

Since 2001, Hobson has acted as Vermont’s taxpayer advocate, a fully-salaried position ranked as any other within the state’s tax collecting agency.

Though the job was only formally introduced into state statues in 2011, she’s performed the function for more than 13 years.

“I’ve worked for the Department of Taxes longer than I care to admit,” Hobson told Vermont Watchdog. “And I’ve worked in every part of this department except collections.”

Her sole job rests on interactions with Vermont’s taxpayers, listening to their complaints and guiding them along so their questions and situations can be dealt with in the fairest manner. She makes yearly recommendations to the Legislature on tax issues, and regularly deals with individual tax cases.

“I’m there to make sure that the taxpayer receives all of their rights under the law and in the actions with the tax department,” she said. “I make room for learning opportunities.”

The tax department’s logo (We’re here to help), found on all its social media sites, indicates how far the state is willing to go to ease people into paying their “fair share” come tax time.

For proponents of a more transparent and accountable government, Hobson’s position would seem to quell their deeply-rooted mistrust of efficient state administration.

It’s not a job found in the Green Mountain State’s headlines too often, but at least several hundred Vermont residents are fully aware of the position’s existence, having recruited her to help on their individual tax issues.

According to Hobson’s 2013 report, she handled 690 cases of specific tax problems, most of them dealing with income or property tax and by taxpayers who directly contacted her instead of being referred. The majority were seeking “general information” and were told “how to fix the issue,” says the report.

“I’m helping the taxpayer understood what happened, why it happened, and what can be done from there,” Hobson said.

As such, Hobson isn’t directly holding the government accountable in the name of the taxpayer, but rather she’s acting as a go-between for residents and their friendly (or not so friendly) neighborhood tax collector.

That means she isn’t advocating for lower taxes or more efficient spending of tax dollars, but rather focusing solely on tax enforcement and what should be changed to ensure the greatest amount of compliance, ergo a easier taxing process for Vermont’s residents.

It may not be an idea isolated to just Vermont.

Information provided to Vermont Watchdog seems to indicate at least six states have some form of taxpayer advocates working for the state government, including Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Texas, Washington and Tennessee.

The extent to which these tax advocates serve the interests of the state or individual taxpayers is up for judgement, but Vermont’s taxpayer advocate is very clear in how she should perform her job.

Despite who signs her paychecks, Dobson said she doesn’t bend to pressure from within Vermont’s administration.

“If I agreed with everything the Department of Taxes did, I wouldn’t be a taxpayer advocate,” she assured Vermont Watchdog. “If people have suggestions or ideas of how things could change, my door is always open.”

Contact Yaël at yael@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @YaelOss.