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Public Integrity wins Sidney Award for debt collection investigation

January 10, 2024

Posted by Chris Roush

Center for Public Integrity investigation into states’ harsh and often counterproductive collections tactics for unpaid income tax has won the January Sidney Award.

The prize is awarded by the Sidney Hillman Foundation to an “outstanding piece of journalism that appeared in the prior month.”

Among the findings: at least nine states can suspend or decline to renew driver’s licenses because of tax debt — Louisiana did so more than 19,000 times last year alone — and at least 16 states and Washington, D.C., can suspend or decline to renew professional licenses for the same reason. Those Catch-22 penalties undercut residents’ ability to pay up.

The Internal Revenue Service, meanwhile, offers far more assistance for taxpayers in financial hardship than most states, Public Integrity discovered.

Reporters Maya Srikrishnan and Ashley Clarke worked on the piece for more than a year, doggedly finding new avenues to tell the story when states blocked data requests by stalling or quoting outrageously high fees. With help from data reporter Joe Yerardi and editor Jamie Smith Hopkins, they interviewed low-income taxpayer clinic attorneys around the country and surveyed every state with an income tax to understand their collections policies and assistance in hardship cases.

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