Jerome Kurtz, a tax lawyer who served as commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service under President Carter and sought to reverse long-standing policies that he considered disproportionately beneficial to the rich, died Feb. 27 in New York City. He was 83.
The cause was complications from surgery, said his daughter Maddie Kurtz.
Mr. Kurtz practiced law in Philadelphia before assuming his post as the nation’s top tax official in 1977. He previously worked in government during the Johnson administration as the Treasury Department’s tax legislative counsel and had established himself as an outspoken critic of certain policies often favored in the higher tax brackets.
“It’s not unusual for tax lawyers to feel as I do,” he told the New York Times when he took office. “But most of them won’t speak out publicly. They feel it would be contrary to the interest of their clients.”
As commissioner, Mr. Kurtz launched an offensive on abuse of tax shelters, the arrangements some individual and corporate taxpayers use to minimize their tax burdens. Among the practices he targeted were commodities transactions such as the one involving silver — known as the “silver butterfly” — in which investors staggered profits and losses to decrease the taxes they owed.
More controversially — and less successfully —Mr. Kurtz sought to tax “fringe” benefits such as employee discounts, company cars and other common perquisites as income. That move was stymied by members of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee in the House.
Forbes magazine wrote that Mr. Kurtz was “having a ball kicking long-established corporate perks in the groin, with or without new legislation.” To those who complained, he suggested that they “take a lower paying job and use standard deductions.”
“Income is income,” Mr. Kurtz told the Times, explaining the theory of “horizontal equity,” “whether it comes from capital gains or a salary. People should be assessed according to their ability to pay.”
Under his leadership, taxpayers completed simplified 1040 forms that were said to have reduced errors. In the tax community, he was known for improving morale at the IRS.
“The consensus is, that within the confines of the IRS job, Jerry Kurtz may be one of the Carter administration’s best and brightest appointments,” The Washington Post reported in 1978, crediting him with having managed to “retain the respect of both liberals and conservatives.”
Mr. Kurtz stepped down from his post in 1980 and returned to private practice, but he remained occasionally in the public eye as a commentator on tax issues of the day. Scaling back the IRS, he said in 1985 during one of many funding debates, is like “slaughtering the goose that lays the golden egg.”
Jerome Kurtz was born May 19, 1931, in Philadelphia. He was a 1952 accounting graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia, received a law degree from Harvard University in 1955 and served for two years in the Army.
Before his tenure at the IRS, he was a partner with the firm of Wolf, Block, Schorr and Solis-Cohen. At the Treasury Department, he did preparatory work that led to the landmark Tax Reform Act of 1969, which created the alternative minimum tax aimed at wealthy taxpayers with extensive deductions.
After leaving the IRS, Mr. Kurtz practiced in Washington with the firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison.
His wife of 47 years, the former Elaine Kahn, died in 2003. Survivors include two daughters, Maddie Kurtz of South Orange, N.J., and Nettie Kurtz Greenstein of West Newton, Mass.; a brother; and four grandchildren.
While the IRS does not generally rank among the most popular government agencies, Mr. Kurtz said he believed the average American considered the tax process to be fair.
“A lot of people have an emotional reaction to the tax system because obviously it costs money,” he said, “but I think in their more reflective moments most people have to say that it’s a fair system and that it is not by any objective standard a very steep tax system.”