JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Even with a new leader at its helm, the fallout continues for Missouri’s embattled Department of Revenue over its handling of tax code changes expected to negatively impact taxpayers.
Ken Zellers, the department’s chief operating officer, was named acting director earlier this month to replace Joel Walters. Walters has been criticized for his role in handling what he called a withholding error by a special House committee.
House Speaker Elijah Haahr, a Republican, asked the special committee, led by Rep. Robert Ross, to continue investigating the issue and to work with the new director “to ensure Missouri taxpayers are protected.”
“I want to thank Rep. Ross and the members of his committee for leading our efforts to protect Missouri taxpayers. Without the investigation, oversight, and hearings they insisted upon, the people would never have known the truth about the mistakes made by the revenue department,” Haahr said. “The resignation of the Director is an important step forward, but the department has much more work to do to regain the trust of the public.”
Walters initially told legislators there was a 15-year withholding error in the state’s tax codes, which was exacerbated when the standard deduction doubled under the new federal tax law. He later seemed to change his story and said there was no error, but rather a judgment call.
His last day at the department is March 22.
“Missouri taxpayers deserve competency and honesty in their state agencies. The [DOR’s] failures and subsequent coverup will impact the pocketbooks and trust of many Missourians,” Ross said. “As legislators, we have a duty to hold bureaucrats accountable when they’re not forthright with the taxpayers, and I’ve never shied away from that.”
While the state House continues its probe, legislators are also pushing for a bill to protect those affected. SB 299, championed by Sen. John Rizzo, unanimously passed out of committee last week. The bill extends the deadline for paying state taxes until June 15 for those who owe less than $200 and allows payment installments for others.
“The strong bipartisan support this legislation has received demonstrates the very real and urgent need to help taxpayers hurt by the Missouri Department of Revenue,” Rizzo said. “This is a common sense, affordable solution for dealing with the problems created or made worse by the Department of Revenue.”
With the leadership change at the DOR, Parson said he has “full confidence” in the agency to “continue providing excellent service to the people of Missouri.” He also praised Walters’ tenure as director as having helped increase customer service and created budget savings.
“Our administration will build off the positive reforms made within the department and ensure Missourians continue to benefit from historical tax cuts made at the federal and state level,” Parson said.
Zellers joined the DOR nearly two years ago after working at Anheuser-Busch InBev as the Global Director of Operations Brewing and Quality. Zellers worked at the company for more than nine years, working his way up from human resources and quality control.
House Budget Chair Cody Smith also promised the state House will pass a balanced budget this year, “regardless of the turmoil or any leadership change inside” the DOR.
Walters’ resignation did little to alleviate frustrated lawmakers. Democratic Rep. Crystal Quade lambasted the Parson administration for not doing enough to inform Missourians about the error and said the DOR leadership change “in no way absolves” the governor.
“The resignation of Director Walters is just a first step that must include Governor Parson taking full responsibility for his administration’s failures and committing to providing relief to those Missourians who are in a financial bind as a result,” she said.
The department has encouraged taxpayers to check and possibly adjust withholding and estimated payments throughout 2019. It has also promoted a phone number for individuals to call who have questions about their 2018 tax returns: 573-522-0967.
Kaitlyn Schallhorn is a reporter with The Missouri Times. She joined the newspaper in March 2019 after working as a reporter for Fox News in New York City. Throughout her career, Kaitlyn has covered political campaigns across the U.S. and humanitarian aid efforts in Africa. She is a native of Missouri who studied journalism at Winthrop University in South Carolina. Contact Kaitlyn at firstname.lastname@example.org.