Government

Finish Iowans' tax returns in 30 days? New director say that's 'achievable'

Kraig Paulsen, director of the Iowa Department of Revenue, is interviewed in July in his Des Moines office. (Rod Boshart/The Gazette)
Kraig Paulsen, director of the Iowa Department of Revenue, is interviewed in July in his Des Moines office. (Rod Boshart/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — Kraig Paulsen, a former Republican speaker of the Iowa House who represented Hiawatha in the Iowa House for 14 years, has spent about five months in a new executive-branch assignment as Gov. Kim Reynolds’ director of the Iowa Department of Revenue.

As overseer of the state’s tax collecting and revenue dispensing agency, Paulsen, 54, is in charge of nearly 300 state employees who are responsible for allocating about $10.4 billion in funding, processing nearly 2 million state income tax returns, managing tax receipts in areas of sales, property and commerce around Iowa and supervising about 95 percent of the revenue collected by government entities statewide.

“There’s a fair amount of money that we’re responsible for administering correctly,” Paulsen said in an interview. “It’s a busy department. There are a lot of pieces out there.”

Paulsen — who served in the Iowa Legislature from 2002 through 2016 and was the Republican speaker of the House from 2011 through 2015 — replaced interim director Adam Humes, who was named when Director Courtney Kay-Decker resigned in December after seven years of service.

An Air Force veteran, Paulsen also worked as corporate counsel to CRST International in Cedar Rapids and was a former commissioner at the Iowa Department of Transportation. He holds a bachelor’s degree and law degree from the University of Iowa and a master’s in business administration from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

Paulsen took over a state agency earlier this year that one legislator during his Senate confirmation called “a mess” due to low employee morale, slow response times to taxpayer inquiries and prolonged wait periods for income tax refunds.

He sat down with The Gazette to discuss the status of the revenue department under his leadership and his plans for addressing the concerns.

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Q: You’ve been in your position as director for about five months. What’s your assessment of the agency as you settle into your new assignment?

A: “The first thing that jumps out is really good people. That had been my experiences when I was in the Legislature, all of my interactions with the department had always been professional, very high competency and that’s exactly what I walked into. It’s an enjoyable group of people to work with, with a servant attitude, and so I think that serves the state very well.”

Q: During the Senate discussion of your confirmation, one senator described the Iowa Department of Revenue as “a mess.” Is it a mess?

A: “Well, I wouldn’t describe that way. I think we’ve got some challenges and some serious ones. I think the ones that my assumption would be that the senator was talking about was with regard to our interaction with Iowans. We can do a little bit better with the timeliness — some of our wait times on the phones are long. We’re working toward correcting some of those things. I think by the time that tax season rolls around next January, my expectation is we’ll be in a much-better place to serve Iowans.”

Q: One of the main complaints brought up during confirmation was the slow response time when Iowans attempt to contact the agency like being on hold for long periods of time and the inability to find the information they need. What are the top areas you see the need for change and improvement?

A: “I think the two things that jump out at me — with regard to the external facing portion of the department — are people calling in and having excessive wait times; and then finally when they get to one of the taxpayer specialists maybe not being able to get an answer as quick as they want. And so we’re working on some of those mechanisms.” (He said he and several assistants visited private call centers to see what they could learn about managing volumes of requests and prioritizing them more efficiently and effectively.) “The question we get asked the most is, “Where is my income tax refund?’ I think there’s a way we can be more transparent on the processing of the income taxes and where an individual is in that process and when the taxpayer can expect their refund.”

Q: Another complaint centered on the slow response in issuing refunds on state income taxes. The department has pointed to security issues that slow the process. Is that being streamlined now that there’s been a couple years of experience under the new era of cyber threats?

A: “That’s part of it (delays caused by new security measures to combat cyber threats). I would also say fraud is a significant part of it, so we need to verify that the return that’s being filed is in fact from the person that claims to be filing it. Both those two things — it takes us a while to work through both of those pieces. But I also don’t see any reason why we can’t say to the taxpayer: ‘Hey, it’s been accepted, we’re now in the first stage of review or the second stage of review’ and identify those. The goal is that we’re done with all of our work within 30 days. I think that’s an achievable goal. Those taxpayers who are in line to get a refund should be able to think in that term — that in 30 days is when the Department of Revenue will release it and we’ll go from there.”

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Q: Have you looked at the department’s website? Some Iowans feel it isn’t very user-friendly.

A: “My feedback to the folks that are in charge of that was that I thought that the old web page was just a below-average web page. We’re in target still to have a new website up and operation in August. Hopefully, it should be substantially more user-friendly. The old one — all the content was there, everything you needed was there — the issue was navigating through it. So we’re hoping that the navigation improves substantially.”

Q: One senator indicated there was a morale problem among employees at the Department of Revenue. Have you found that to be the case and what can be done to improve the work environment?

A: “I think the morale problems were overstated.”

Q: When Gov. Terry Branstad was elected in 2010, his message when he came back into office was, ‘There’s a new sheriff in town.’ Has that been the message you’ve conveyed here in the department?

A: “No. That’s probably a better question for somebody else. It was not my intent. My intent was to help a group of talented people do their job correctly and I think that’s the pathway that we’re on. The agency is big enough that there’s probably somebody who isn’t as excited to come to work as everyone would hope, right? But when you have a little under 300 people in an organization you can start to apply rules of large numbers, but I think we’re in acceptable shape in that area.”

l Comments: (515) 243-7220; rod.boshart@thegazette.com

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