Fox Business anchor Cheryl Casone talks with Opportunist’s Managing Editor Leslie Stone about her weeklong TV special on taxes, the insight she gained from producing the show and what she enjoys most about her career.
This year’s tax season has been fraught with Congressional in-fighting, midnight voting and negotiations over the fiscal cliff and sequestration. “Americans are so frustrated with Congress and how the government is being run and, of course, they are fed up with all the over-spending,” says Cheryl Casone, who is hosting a weeklong TV series called “Tax Pain!” on the Fox Business Network. “This show was my idea because taxes cause an incredible amount of stress. We now have a tax code that is more complicated than ever. We have seven tax brackets! It should not be that way. An emotional component is being added this year because there is so much anger at Congress—especially when you realize you’re paying for what they’re spending. It has become such a divisive issue, and it is pitting poor against rich. That frustration is starting to really boil over.”
Her series airs at noon Monday through Friday of this week and features executives and tax experts who will provide insight on how to properly file taxes, how tax returns affect people in every tax bracket and small businesses. “We wanted to address what people should be doing to handle the complexity of taxes and what they need to be asking their accountants—especially small business owners and wealthier individuals,” Casone adds. “If I cannot be the experts, I am going to learn from them. Whatever we can do to help the viewer is what we should be doing. Unemployment is going to stay high and the tax code is not going to change, so we need to step up and help our viewers wade through it. They need an advocate.”
Opportunist: Who are some of the experts you’ve invited to appear on your show?
Casone: Yesterday we had Scott Hodge, who is considered one of Washington’s most innovative thinkers on tax policy. We are featuring former U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison on Wednesday, March 20. She is back in Texas and going into business with her husband. I am excited about her appearance because I am originally from Texas, and she’s a fellow Pi Phi [Laughs]. We have formed a relationship over the years. She is going to talk about states like Texas, where many business people are flocking because there is no state income tax. There are just a handful of states that don’t have state income tax—Alaska, Florida, Nevada, South Dakota and Texas—so we are going to kind of focus on those states but also drive the point home that businesses will be leaving high tax states for lower tax states. Also, Grover Norquist, founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform, is coming on the show. As you know, he is one of the biggest voices when it comes to lower taxes and free markets.
Opportunist: That’s an interesting lineup. Did you learn anything new while putting the show together? What is new for this tax season?
Casone: There are certain things that I did not know had changed—like the adoption credit, for example. I also learned that we are getting a little bit more in terms of our general deductions for married couples as well as for single people. Also, deductions for storm expenses are allowed this year. I was looking at that because of Hurricane Sandy. Storm damage from Hurricanes Isaac and Sandy can be a deductible item if it’s 10 percent of adjusted income. Of course, that is going to be lower than your gross income. That’s something that people probably don’t know.
Opportunist: Has the fiscal cliff and sequestration affected taxpayers?
Casone: This year it was the delay that affected taxpayers the most—as if it weren’t a stressful enough time already. Many people desperately needed to file so they could get their money back quickly, but everything was delayed. Six trillion hours are spent on taxes every year—and then they delayed it. It’s not just the IRS, though. It’s everyone. Every company that had to generate a tax form had to wait and then everyone else had to wait on them. Companies’ W2s were late, 1099s were late by weeks, and so it just delayed everything. It was the most frustrating thing.
Opportunist: Do you believe both political parties have contributed to the problem?
Casone: Oh, absolutely. American politics has become so polarized that it’s frustrating to watch. Politicians are so angry they have stopped working together. They aren’t using their heads anymore and they are politicizing every issue as they did with the fiscal cliff. I think it’s the worst I have seen. That’s where the President seems to come in. He hasn’t so far, but tomorrow can be a new day. We will see. Politics is hard for me to speculate about without any kind of credibility. I wish I had a sense of why. We have two incredibly different views of how the country should be run, and I think the division started in 2008 with the financial crisis.
Opportunist: Unfortunately, quite a few people are still recovering from the financial crisis. Can those who are unemployed and hunting for jobs deduct the expense of searching for work?
Casone: Yes, that continues to be a deduction. I think that’s important. Many of the deductions that average people use, such as child care tax credit and flexible spending remain in place.
Opportunist: IRS Form 8863 (education credits) is a big deal for those who have gone back to school to gain more skills to compete in the job market. We heard Form 8863 was delayed until mid-February. Do you know if this issue has been resolved?
Casone: That’s a great question. There have been so many delays with forms in general. It’s almost overpowering. I do know that the education tax break was extended at least to 2012 for tuition and course materials.
Opportunist: Is it better to enlist the help of a live tax preparation expert or is it still safe to use an online program?
Casone: I don’t think computer filing, at least for now, is the way to go. With all the changes, I believe we are going to have to use real live people.
It really depends on where you are in your life, but there are so many things you may not know how to handle properly. It’s worth it to pay for the advice to have somebody help you find ways to manage—not just your money but your tax return. I think it’s worth it, I truly do.
Opportunist: If someone has not filed taxes for a few years what should they do?
Casone: They need to hire a person from a reputable firm, whether H&R Block or an accounting firm in their area and bring everything or as much as they have. They should brace for penalties, but know that the IRS will work with them and sometimes will even reduce the amount of money owed. If you’re out of work and you owe the IRS tens of thousands of dollars, they will work with you. They offer payment plans. They’d rather take something over nothing. They are human beings after all.
Opportunist: It’s been said that some people fear the IRS more than death. Should taxpayers live in fear that the IRS will come knocking or seize their property for back-taxes?
Casone: There are people who are tax evaders, who are doing illegal things and who deserve to lose their things. But if you’re an honest person who simply fell on hard times and if your taxes are a piece of that it’s obviously a tragedy. The IRS has their own calculations of who they try to audit. Overall, it’s likely going to be high-income filers. They really aren’t going after the store clerk down the street. They want the CEO or small business owner.
Opportunist: What potential red flags should taxpayers be aware of?
Casone: Deductions that don’t seem realistic or inconsistencies from year to year. If your deductions are just out of control—you listed $500 in travel expenses on your 2010 return and $10,000 in 2011, for example—they will take a second look and flag you for a review. You have to be very realistic on your return and be able to back up what you are putting down.
Opportunist: If you want to amend your tax return, how many years can you go back and what are the deadlines for doing that?
Casone: You can go back three years. You can always request extensions, but the deadlines are the same as for filing: April 15th or August 15th.
Opportunist: If a taxpayer’s identity is stolen and the IRS sends them a letter saying their social security number was already used on a tax return, what should they do?
Casone: First and foremost, file a police report. Then call the credit reporting agencies: TransUnion, Equifax, and Experian. Report it to the IRS even if they notified you first. Start digging into everything. Look at all your credit card statements because once they dig in they can steal everything. You may have homes purchased under your Social Security number that you didn’t know about.
Opportunist: What advice can you provide for taxpayers who want to lessen their tax burden next year?
Casone: Giving money to charity is one of the fastest ways for those who are in a higher tax bracket to lower their tax burden. So, taxpayers truly need to assess how much money they give to charity. They can also deduct any expenses incurred while doing charity work.
Casone: I think the absurdity of where we are in this country with our tax code. It’s just incredulous to me that we have the type of tax code that we do. Every year or two years in election time someone somewhere talks about simplifying and changing the tax code, but that never happens. There is so much inequality about how taxes are paid. Forty-seven percent of Americans don’t pay anything—and some of them are using all the social programs. Basically, 10 percent of the population pays 70 percent of the bill. I am worried that it will make our country anti-competitive because the people who want to succeed are going to leave and pursue their dreams in another country because it doesn’t make sense to try and do it here anymore. Ask people who live in England and France how they feel about their taxes. Correct me if I am wrong, but wasn’t America founded on the fact that we wanted to get away from the taxation of the British? That was 1776, and here we are.
Opportunist: Who inspired you to pursue a career in journalism, Cheryl?
Casone: My grandmother, who is no longer with us, kind of inspired me. She and my grandfather were both Depression era kids. They were hard workers and successful small business owners in Northeast Texas. I think that’s where I got my work ethic, so it’s really a family story. I also found inspiration through friends and leaders that I have watched grow throughout different points in my life—especially women. I am always inspired by people who built themselves up from nothing and became a success.
Opportunist: What is your most memorable assignment?
Casone: Our September 11th 10-year anniversary special was one of the most moving pieces I have ever done. On Friday, Sept. 9, 2011, I did a live show outside the New York Stock Exchange. Hilary Clinton, U.S. Secretary of State at the time joined me, as well as former New York Gov. George Pataki.
I have also done a lot of coverage on the Middle East, Israel and the Palestinian territories. I went to Syria before it became the Syria that you see now. I have a big interest in international news, so that was really a highlight for me.
Opportunist: You’ve interviewed the who’s who in the finance industry and world government. Who impressed you the most?
Casone: I have a huge amount of respect for Hillary Clinton, and also Shimon Peres, president of the State of Israel. Talk about a witness to history. Peres is a witness to history, and former British prime minister Tony Blair is as well. There are also some CEOs that I adore, such as Terry Lundgren, CEO of Macy’s. His leadership skills are impressive. I see legends of broadcasting every day in the Fox office building, which is pretty cool. [Laughs] It is always a thrill to sit and talk one-on-one with Roger Ailes.
Opportunist: What do you enjoy most about your work?
Casone: That I am helping people. That’s the reason I got into journalism. I don’t just want to tell viewers what’s going on—I want them to understand it. Whether I am giving stock tips or advice on how to handle your taxes or maybe helping people understand international investing, which is another hobby of mine by the way, it is very rewarding for me to help people.
Opportunist: How do you spend your leisure time?
Casone: I am a triathlete and I enjoy doing triathlons. Up until recently, I spent some of my free time volunteering with the ASPCA. I also enjoy international travel—when I can get away. Investing in real estate is fun for me, especially with these interest rates of 3.4 or 3.5 percent. Oh my goodness, money is practically free! [Laughs] I have been buying and selling homes and investing in the stock market since I was 22 years old. I also enjoy reading People magazine and watching ‘Entertainment Tonight.’ I live in Manhattan, so Central Park has become my happy place.
Follow Cheryl Casone on twitter at @cherylcasone
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Leslie Stone is an award-winning writer/editor with more than two decades of experience covering business, finance and lifestyle issues for newspapers, magazines and online publications. Originally from Virginia, she currently resides in the Orlando area. Follow her on twitter at @les7989.