Church Exemption: Good for the Goose is Good for the Gander

New Orleans   The membership of legacy religious institutions may be falling like a rock, but their privileges are increasing. President Trump last week signed an executive order that sought to do a couple of things for churches. On one hand he wanted to give them some more flexibility in opposing abortion for their workers and institutions, but most of that had already been done by the courts in the Hobby Lobby case. The other penance he offered was protection for political endorsements being made by pastors right from the pulpit, and that’s interesting.

The Internal Revenue Service provides a tax exemption under its 501c3 classification for religious institutions and other nonprofits providing charitable, educational, and other benefits. In exchange for such a tax exemption there are some restrictions including the level of profit-making enterprises escaping taxation, unless they are directly related to the mission and purpose of the exempt nonprofit. There is also a ban on political activity and endorsements.

Trump’s executive order was a promise to the evangelical and religious community that he would get them around the Johnson Amendment and its restriction on religious endorsements. In some ways this was a bit of a straw man. Priests and pastors have been making political endorsements from the pulpit for years without provoking any investigations from the IRS, so they have been able to do so with impunity. Evangelical preachers have hardly been quaking in their brogans as they have embraced and endorsed conservative politicians from right to far-righter for fear of losing their tax privileges. Archbishops and Cardinals in heavily Catholic cities and states have sometimes jumped into the middle of political campaigns, including threatening excommunication of parishioners for voting for governors, senators, and representatives bold enough to support abortions. Trump’s claim was that his order would now protect them and give them license to jump into politics at their will and whim.

Talking to the director and organizer of an environmental group the other day who was debating whether his tax exempt group needed to form an entity that could be more aggressively active in pushing climate change into the political agenda, I had jokingly suggested that since a lot of environmentalists already talked about nature as their church, a simple fix for this problem would be to just say his outfit was now religious, and say whatever they wanted to say. Now in truth Trump’s order doesn’t mean much. The IRS will likely just ignore it and given the way they’ve ignored such blatant politics in the pulpit in the past and their depleted ranks in the exemption debate, it doesn’t add up to much.

But, what’s good for the goose, should be good for the gander. If the IRS lightened up on one group of nonprofits, they would have to lighten up on the whole bunch, equal protection being what it is once the matter finds its way to the courts. Nonprofit staff and leadership wouldn’t have to dance around whether they were speaking and acting personally and not as representatives of their organizations as they jumped into politics any more than pastors and priests. The President may not care that if he opens the door for one, everybody can walk in, but if this order has any weight, that’s what it should end up meaning. What’s good for one is good for all.

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The IRS Enables the Return of Refund Anticipation Loans

New Orleans   Refund anticipation loans or RALs, as they were known, were one of the most predatory products on the market in their heyday targeted solely to low-and-moderate income workers who were most desperate for their tax returns. They were on the other side of the digital divide so less likely to file with the IRS electronically. The money was theirs, and tax preparers, especially the big boys of the market, H&R Block, Jackson & Hewitt, and Liberty Tax Services all exploited this desperation.

This was a 21st century national campaign for ACORN, and we forced the first negotiations with H&R Block after 330 actions in a 6 week time period during the height of the tax season, and eventually ended up with agreements with all three of the companies to wind down RALs. Disclosures of the interest rates were part all of the agreements, but it didn’t really matter since even if it said the interest rate on the loan to get their money one week earlier than the IRS would deliver it would cost them 349%, displayed in a poster or on the computer screen, if you have to have the money to pay rent or buy groceries or fix the car and you have to have it right now, disclosures, no matter how predatory don’t matter. Eventually we got HSBC to withdraw as the primary lender to the companies for RALs for what they termed, “reputational reasons” because the loans were so exploitative. Finally, the IRS and eventually other government agencies jumped in and also condemned RALs, and they finally faded from the market.

Now, thanks to the IRS, they are back, and there is even less doubt about the potential victims now. In 2017, the IRS decided to deliberately delay refunds until February for any taxpayer that claimed the earned-income tax credit or the child tax credit. These credits are only available to lower income workers. Presidents from Clinton to Bush to Obama have argued that EITC is the best and largest “anti-poverty program in the United States.”

On their website the IRS claimed they were concerned about an “error rate” of between 20 and 27% for filers in order to justify these delays. Something is fishy here. This is the IRS. The error rate should be an exact number based on information they have at hand on how many corrected filings they required, so giving a fudged number raises questions in my mind. Furthermore, their advice is to preparers who enable incorrect filings, which the IRS concedes are largely based on the complexity and confusion involved in the EITC program. Why was the pain not pushed to the preparers, rather than the families filing who were delayed unreasonably in receiving their returns? Oh, and meanwhile the number of audits of higher income filers is in the dumps now!

The preparers saw an opportunity and seized it by offering RALs again. Admittedly, these were no-interest loans this time offered against the amount of the return, and they had loan limits depending on the company’s policies. The big boys report over 1.5 million RALs are reported already this tax season with a month to go. Block did 840,000, Liberty175,000, and Jackson Hewitt 485,000. For the preparers, this is just the cost of customer acquisition, since it is cheese in the trap to catch low-income workers who would be forced to fork over the preparation cost to get their refunds.

No matter how much sugar you put in the coffee, this is once again the IRS partnering with private preparers to expand their businesses. The only real question is how long it will be before RALs are back in full and terrible force again?

The only good news in this tawdry story is that overall filings are down so far this year, so some people at least have decided to wait all of the vultures out.

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