Nina Olson identified a need, which created a movement and changed the landscape of America’s tax system forever. She started the Community Tax Law Project in 1992 and the Revenue Restructuring Act, (“RRA”), which ushered in a new era for taxpayer advocacy (including the Taxpayer Advocate Service and the role of National Taxpayer Advocate (“NTA”)) was passed in 1998.
The Pittsburgh Tax Review’s Fall 2020 publication focuses on different facets of Nina’s life and career. It features articles from Nina’s esteemed colleagues and friends, including Keith and Les. It is an incredibly inspiring symposium, especially during this time when it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and burnt out. I touch on some of highlights, but each of the articles are worth reading in full- especially if you are an LITC practitioner. The entire publication is available here.
There were many times reading through the publication that I could envision the energy of the moments. There are gems throughout (even in the footnotes): the car rides shared by Nina and Keith, their remarkable and supportive friendship, the discussions by the Senate Finance Committee about the role of the Taxpayer Advocate in the Department of Treasury’s hierarchy, the growing pains of transforming TAS into what it is today, and the ripple effects Nina has created with her work.
The tribute is an insight into the way that Nina thinks, works, and approaches challenges and it is incredible. Stories about Nina’s profound impact on people (tax practitioners and taxpayers, alike) are interwoven with stories of her profound impact on policies and procedures.
Many of the stories allowed me to revisit the period in my life when I stumbled upon the LITC world and the excitement I felt after learning that I could be the type of lawyer that I had always wanted to be. I could practice tax law, truly help people, and hopefully have a positive impact on the world.
Nina ran a tax preparation and accounting business for nearly as long as she was the NTA, and then went on to graduate from law school only ten years before becoming the NTA.
In an article written by Nina, she reflects on the opportunity to become the NTA and how it aligned with her plans and passion to continue advocating for taxpayers after ensuring that the Community Tax Law Project was well-established and self-sufficient. She acknowledges the work of the teams of people that made her successes possible. She also humbly states that the intention of her article is merely to recount her experience and her thoughts. It is, of course, much more than that- and it is a rare and exciting look at the life experience of a zealous leader.
Nina testified before Congress, before she ever imagined being the NTA, about the role the NTA should play and the need for strong leadership, without realizing that she was describing herself – a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. She states, “Little did I know then that I would have that responsibility one day […] the furthest thing from my mind was to become the National Taxpayer Advocate. In 1998, my sole focus was building The Community Tax Law Project.”
Things that many practitioners now take for granted were so hard fought, won, and paved the way for the ability of TAS and LITCs to advocate for taxpayer rights. Any difficulties Nina encountered were transformed into opportunities to learn and improve
The stories contained in the tribute demonstrate Nina’s relentless passion for advocacy, her ability to call the IRS out on its absurdities and remain steadfast to TAS’s purpose and mission, which she helped develop.
Nina recognizes that conventional wisdom typically states to “choose your battles wisely” but that is not possible when it comes to taxpayer rights and being too selective about battles only makes it harder to get things accomplished later.
Some of the stories highlight how Nina’s quick wit is one of her best weapons. For example, Nina reflected on the frustration she felt at the underutilization of Taxpayer Assistance Orders early in her time as NTA. She recalled that, at a TAS training symposium, “A member of the audience approached the microphone and said that many of them had good relationships with IRS employees and issuing a TAO would harm those relationships going forward.”[Nina] was silent for a minute, and then said, “If issuing a TAO will harm that relationship, then you don’t have a ‘relationship’—you have unrequited love.”
And there was the time when an IRS Operating Division advisor had asked her to look at things from his perspective. She countered that it is her job and she is required by law, to look at things from the taxpayer’s perspective, the rest of the IRS can look at it from the IRS’s perspective.
Everything boils down to the impact Nina has had on the lives of America’s taxpayers, which includes all of us. As Caroline Ciraolo writes, “[b}ehind every legal issue is a taxpayer, a family, or a community that will benefit from our efforts,” as Prof. Lipman writes, “the federal income tax system exists for people,” and as Prof. Cords writes, “taxpayer rights are human rights.”
The pandemic has shown us that we are all interconnected, and not caring for the most vulnerable of our population can leave us all more vulnerable. Nina’s work advocating for low-income taxpayer, for credits that help lift children and families out of poverty, and for the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, among other things, helps the most vulnerable and positively impacts us all.
The fight for taxpayer rights never ends and resistance by the powers that be- in the name of cost and efficiency- never wanes, but Nina and what she has created, and continues to create, empowers tax practitioners to feel like we can effectuate real and meaningful change. The tribute to her in the Pittsburgh Tax Review was wonderful and motivational reminder of that.