(USA TODAY) -- The Internal Revenue service is catching up on processing tax returns in this delayed tax-filing season, but it's still behind last year's pace.
The IRS says it has processed 77.1 million tax returns through March 22, vs. 82 million from the same period last year. The average refund is $2,827 this year, down slightly from $2,860 last year.
The delay has a simple explanation - Congress - which didn't agree on a number of tax rules until the very last minute. The IRS needed more time to update its computers and forms. As a result, it started processing returns about 10 days later than usual.
Nevertheless, they have been closing the gap. The IRS has processed 6% fewer tax returns vs. the same period last year, compared with a 13.1% gap March 1.
The IRS has accepted 72.5 million electronic returns this year, down from 75.1 million in the same period last year. So far, the government has made 57 million direct-deposit refunds totaling $171 billion. The average direct-deposit refund is $2,985, slightly below the $3,030 direct-deposit refund last year.
"It's been an unusual season," says Julie Miller, spokeswoman for Intuit TurboTax. "Consumer behavior has been pushed back a bit." For example, delays in processing claims for Form 8863, the education tax credit, delayed more than 600,000 filers until mid-February. "People must be thinking that they'll wait until the dust settles before they file," Miller says.
Despite the delays, the number of those asking for extensions remains almost the same so far this year as the same period last year, Miller says.
But activity has been accelerating at TurboTax as the April 15 deadline draws near, Miller says. "There are millions of folks who have yet to file, and they will need to do so between now and two weeks from now. We're anticipating a very busy two weeks."