Whining of Charities is Unseemly

Gulfport  The recently approved tax bill is an abomination without any doubt. It’s claims of reform are a poorly crafted mask for a transfer of wealth from virtually all of us over the coming years to the coffers of the rich and corporations. Despite a couple of public relations stunts based largely on favorable tax savings when Verizon and Wells Fargo offered raises and bonuses to their workers, most economists are skeptical that any of these huge corporate savings will trickle down. Polls indicate that Americans think the bill stinks, and President Trump thinks it’s wonderful, so there we have it.

Nonetheless, one thing that is clear for individual and family taxpayers is that the standard deduction will rise for individuals from $6000 to $12000 and for couples to $24,000 beginning on January 1st, 2018. Without a doubt there are going to be some people who begin this roll with a smile on their faces.

There has been a quiet, but steady hum in the background though from charities of all places. Very little of their complaints are full voiced because the whining seems so unseemly, but increasingly some of the larger ones are wringing their hands more loudly because they aren’t happy that their appeals for tax deductible contributions will be so meaningless to those largely middle class families who might have made contributions thinking they would benefit by itemizing, but now won’t bother.

Me thinks they protest too much, even if this is only some static accompanied by the strident pitches of nonprofit public relations and marketing mavens. Particularly ironic are the voices of local community foundations since they are favored by the wealthy, who will do very well with these tax cuts, thank you so much. Itemized deductions were already largely a wealth preserve. The nonprofit Tax Foundation doesn’t mince its words on this issue, saying, “While the federal tax code generally imposes a much higher burden on high-income households, itemized deductions are an area of the tax code that mostly benefits the wealthy.”

The numbers bear that out. Only 6.5% of families making $25,000 or less itemize. According to the Tax Foundation, the vast majority don’t itemize:

30.1 percent of households chose to itemize their deductions (44 million returns). 68.5 percent of households chose to take the standard deduction (101 million returns). 1.6 percent of households had zero or negative adjusted gross income, and were unable to take any deductions. (2 million returns)

Additional research by the Foundation indicates that a majority only itemize once their income hits the $75 – $100,000 per year range, with 78.8% itemizing between $100-$200,000, and 93.5% itemizing over $200,000 per year. Pretty clear where these benefits lie. The impact of these Republican tax giveaways likely just means that more families with less than $100,000 to $150,000 won’t itemize, but those making $150,000 or more will still be doing so.

Lower income families already give a higher percentage of their incomes away according to most research, regardless of the tax benefits. Perhaps it is time for charities to start making their appeals based on their programs and benefits regardless of the supposed tax benefits, so that people give because they believe in the nonprofit’s mission rather than trying to stiff Uncle Sam. At the least they need to stop whining, because they are clearly crying wolf way too often since their rich donors will be doing very well thanks to the Republican’s special care for their interests.

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Nonprofits May Be Able to Go Politically Wild Thanks to House Republicans

New Orleans   The “law of unintended consequences” is not one that was passed by the US House of Representatives and its far right, ideological Republican majority, but it is certainly one that they might soon learn at their peril.

One of the many hidden time bombs in their recent tax bill, now heading towards conference with the Senate, was originally a repeal of the Johnson Amendment that prohibits tax-exempt charities from political activity. Initially, their amendment was only a wet kiss to the heavy breathers in their religious base who wanted a special exemption to practice politics from the pulpit. Not to be outdone – the final version of the House bill instead opens a political floodgate for charities to go wild. Their bill says that any tax-exempt charity can boost or bust political candidates if “the preparation and presentation of such content” is “in the ordinary course of the organization’s regular and customary activities” and does not result in more than de minimis incremental expenses.” (thanks to Ellen P. Aprill a tax law professor at Loyola Law School who read and reported the language!)

So, sure, that would cover preaching, because there’s no cost in adding an endorsement into a sermon, but it would also cover a world of other things that fit fully into a nebulous “de minimis” standard like a banner across a website’s home page, constant Twitter and Facebook posts, and endless email blasts all of which have virtually no cost. Remember as well that these standards are all set and monitored by the Internal Revenue Service, which to date, since the passage of the Johnson Amendment, has never clarified the existing standard of what might be permissible political activity, leaving the matter to institutional restraint and lawyer empowering, as one outfit after another takes a stab at a number, whether less than 5% or 8% or zero. Remember also that because of that the penalties are also somewhere between nil and a hand slap. President Trump’s own foundation was caught in this mess, as you may also remember, when he used the foundation’s funds to make several political contributions at the 5-figure levels, all of which he remedied by repaying the foundation. There was never a question about whether he was going to surrender the tax exemption of his foundation and certainly no evidence that the IRS was threatening to take it away. Without the thin shield of the Johnson Amendment, there will be no practical limits to what nonprofits might be able to do.

The Republican House may think more activism from the pulpit makes it all worthwhile, but they aren’t the only nonprofits who can jump into the partisan playgrounds. Take nonprofit hospitals for example, which still make up almost 60% of hospitals. A list of the top six systems from Ascension to Kaiser in the Wall Street Journal indicated they were turning over $158.5 billion dollars annually. Hospitals were pretty united in their opposition to the Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and will be even more committed to any cutbacks in Medicaid or Medicare. If “de minimis” was 5%, they could spent almost $8 billion, but even dropping notices in every bill or banners on every sign-up for your medical records online now would certainly get the message out. It would also cost just the same for doctors and nurses to whisper in patients’ ears as it cost for the pastor to slip an endorsement in a prayer.

Churches are shrinking while many other parts of the nonprofit sector, like healthcare, are soaring. The Republican House might should get on their knees and offer something up to the Republican Senate to save them from this repeal before the law of unintended consequences makes them give more than they hope to receive.

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