On a professional level, tax time for me means a series of futile attempts to contact CPAs and whole firms that have basically gone into hibernation until the tulips and crocus begin to bloom. Even the simplest request, such as confirming an address or partner count, is often met with a sweeping anathema from an otherwise sunny receptionist, who sounds more like an enraged stevedore who got his hand caught in a gaffing hook.

On a personal level, tax season is when I train for three weeks to open up my checkbook and painfully write in Uncle Sam under "pay to the order of."

Until now, my job in journalism kept me sufficiently shielded from the alternative minimum tax. This year, my accountant actually had to examine whether my wife's and my combined income bumped up against the 36-year-old rule that was initially drafted to lasso wealthy tax evaders. It probably was the ultimate good news/bad news scenario. Although judging from my past experiences with taxes on a state and federal level, it's been a lot more of the latter.

But the controversial AMT - which is now threatening to impact the middle class - is on the proverbial chopping block. At least theoretically.

The nine members of the President's Panel on Tax Reform have reached a consensus that the tax should be abolished - their first decision since being appointed.

As a person who is sort of familiar with tax disputes, I was nevertheless taken aback to discover that the AMT affects some four million families this year. Projected out, that figure is going to balloon to roughly 21 million next year and, within 10 years, 51 million taxpayers will learn the meaning of the three-letter acronym, according to statistics supplied courtesy of the Treasury Department.

Those affected by the AMT have to calculate their taxes twice - first under the standard system and then under the AMT. Unfortunately, taxpayers don't get to choose which amount to pay - it will be the higher one.

The taxpayers in the middle class who are liable under the AMT traditionally live in states with high tax rates and have more than one child.

But the panel, which is charged with making the ponderous Internal Revenue Code simpler, fairer and more economically efficient, has the small problem of replacing the $1.2 trillion that the Treasury Department was sort of expecting to collect through the AMT over the ensuing 10 years. Reform panel chairman Connie Mack said that the government's tax revenue could most likely be replaced through changes in tax rates or tax breaks.

There have been a number of Band-Aid-type fixes to blunt the growth of the AMT, and a Senate bill calling for its repeal was floated just a few months ago.

Naturally, there are critics who say that repealing the AMT is akin to giving higher-income taxpayers carte blanche in skirting taxation, and will not imbue confidence in the tax system as a whole - particularly for those in the lower economic strata who more often than not feel they're screwed annually on their 1040s anyway.

In any event, the panel has until September 30 to submit their tax improvement and streamlining recommendations to Treasury Secretary John Snow.

I leave it to far brighter minds than mine to determine the fate of the AMT. But when my preparer actually has to check to see whether a humble wage earner like myself is affected, maybe it's time for a change.

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