By WILL SKOWRONSKI, Capital News Service
BALTIMORE (March 20, 2008) - File a federal tax return and the rebate check really will be in the mail, lawmakers told citizens at a free filing center here Tuesday.
Money from the government's recent economic stimulus package can be used for anything from heating bills to food, said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Baltimore, but it won't arrive unless residents put in their paperwork.
Cummings and other Maryland lawmakers came to the Western Community Action Center Tuesday to explain the benefits of the government's $152 billion answer to a struggling economy.
"Every rebate check claimed is another few months on food or another monthly bus pass for its recipients . . . as well as another check to be pumped back into the economy to help bring it back to stability," Cummings told the 30 or so souls at the center. "We simply cannot afford to let these dollars go unclaimed."
The center houses more than a dozen programs to help low-income residents, including the Baltimore CASH Campaign, which provides free assistance for tax filing.
Many people living in low-income areas who could benefit from the rebate, said Joanna Smith-Ramani, executive director of the Baltimore CASH program, don't normally file returns because their earnings are too small to tax or they receive non-taxable benefits.
Taxpayers making more than $3,000 a year, as well as Social Security beneficiaries and disabled veterans, are set to receive between $300 and $600 starting May 2 as part of the rebate. About 2.5 million Maryland families could receive up to $1,200 with an additional $300 for each child. Tax returns must be filed by April 15.
The IRS sent out 340,000 special packets to Social Security and Veterans Assistance dependents, who wouldn't normally need to file, said Jim Dupree, an IRS spokesman. The Treasury Department expects that Marylanders will receive about $2.1 billion as part of the rebates.
Maryland Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin and Reps. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Cockeysville, and John Sarbanes, D-Towson, said more economic catalysts are in the works to stave off a recession threatened by a collapse in the subprime mortgage market. The collapse and buy out of Bear Stearns, a major investment banking firm, as well as a reported loss of 63,000 jobs in February are the latest indicators of more trouble to come.
"I think the stimulus package is just one part," Cardin said. "We clearly need more. It needs to be multifaceted."
Cardin has proposed legislation to award tax benefits to first-time home buyers. Another Senate bill would allow bankruptcy judges to adjust mortgage rates to help struggling homeowners who would otherwise be forced to give up their homes. Unemployment benefits and job-creating infrastructure projects have also been mentioned as potential remedies.
Even though the tax rebate may be only $300 and not come until May, Sarbanes said, the benefits will be felt.
"I wouldn't second guess the stimulus package. It's going to be a boost," Sarbanes said. "You have to also keep in mind what's happening around people's kitchen tables."
Gwendolyn Johnson came to the meeting to learn about the rebate and pass the word to other Southwest Baltimore residents. She doesn't normally file tax returns, but will this year.
"It's got to the point now where you look at your paycheck and ask, 'Am I going to be able to pay my gas and electric bill, get food and pay rent?'" Johnson said of her neighborhood. "It's bad. We need this tax rebate."
It's important to get the word out, Cummings said, because people struggling to make ends meet don't know they're eligible for the rebate.
"I think there are so many people suffering that any funds coming will help them," Cummings said. "It's never too late."
Richard Byrd, the commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service Wage & Investment Division, showed the audience what the tax form envelope looks like when it arrives by mail and explained they would only need to fill out five lines to be eligible for the rebate.
"It is not that often that us from the IRS can say we're here to help you," Byrd said. "Please send us what we need to send you what you deserve."
The IRS will hold help session at its offices on March 29 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.