Thursday, November 16, 2017
The Tax Reform Moving Target: The Shrinking Charitable Contribution Deduction (+ Slamming Rich (Private) Universities)
Given the uncertainty regarding whether Congress will enact tax reform, much less what will be in it, trying to analyze how it could affect charities and other tax-exempt nonprofits is probably a lost cause. But there are at least two aspects of the current proposals that are worth consideration, if only because they likely will resurface even if Congress does not enact them this time around.
Overall Changes Will Shrink the Charitable Contribution Deduction: Despite all the uncertainty, certain overall changes have remained constant: sharply increasing the standard deduction, lowering tax rates for at least some taxpayers, and reducing or repealing the estate tax. All of these changes will reduce or eliminate the importance of the charitable contribution deduction for many taxpayers and so reduce the incentives for charitable giving. How much? No one knows for sure, although the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy made some estimates last May and the Tax Policy Center of the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution has made a more recent reduced giving estimate of between $12 billion and $20 billion in 2018 giving based on the House bill).
Today's Bad Guys: Rich (Private) Universities: Several provisions that provide modest revenues are targeted at wealthy colleges and universities, including a small investment income tax on large (relative to student population) endowments. In addition, several more general provisions would hit colleges and universities particularly hard, including the elimination of tax-exempt bonds as a source of financing for tax-exempt charities, an excise tax on compensation over $1 million paid by tax-exempt entities, and the repeal of many education-related tax benefits. It appears, however, that some of these provisions do not reach public colleges and universities, specifically the endowment investment income tax and the tax-exempt bond financing provisions. If not rectified, these differences would give public colleges and universities an advantage over their private counterparts, although how significant and advantage is unclear. For more, see the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO)'s website summarizing and raising concerns about these and other education-related tax reform provisions.
Thursday, November 2, 2017
House Republicans' Tax Bill Preserves Charitable Contribution Deduction, But Will It Be Less Utilized?
According to The New York Times (here and here), Republicans in the House of Representatives release proposed legislation today that would institute some significant changes to the Internal Revenue Code. Although the tax bill preserves the charitable contribution deduction, significant changes to the standard deduction may result in even less taxpayers itemizing their deductions. The proposed tax bill nearly doubles the amount of the standard deduction and eliminates the personal exemption. Presently, approximately 30% of filing taxpayers elect to itemize their deductions. According to the Tax Policy Center, 84% of taxpayers who currently elect to itemize would take the standard deduction as proposed under this bill.
According to The Washington Post, the National Council of Nonprofits warned that charitable deductions will decrease under this legislation as many middle- and upper-middle-class taxpayers would likely not elect to itemize, thus losing any tax benefit of making charitable contributions. Republicans counter that assertion by concluding that such taxpayers should give more to charities due to decreased tax bills. Stay tuned for more response from the charitable sector as well as calculated effect of the proposed change on the charitable contribution deduction.
Monday, October 9, 2017
The Johnson Amendment--which prohibits 501c3 exempt organizations from engaging in partisan political activity--is under repeated attack this year. In mid-September, the U.S. House of Representatives approved an appropriations bill with a rider that prohibits the IRS from enforcing the Johnson Amendment against any "church" unless "the Commissioner of Internal Revenue consents to such determination" and the IRS provides notice to Congress. Two other bills would weaken the Johnson Amendment by allowing 501c3 nonprofits to engage in an insubstantial amount of politicking (similar to lobbying rules). An earlier Executive Order on the subject turned out to be legally meaningless.
Thousands of nonprofits joined the National Council of Nonprofits to call for keeping the Johnson Amendment as a needed tool to preserve the sector's nonpartisanship. Many faith groups have also opposed changes that might lead to politicizing houses of worship. Recently, National Association of State Charities Officials (NASCO) penned a letter, unsurprisingly favoring more regulation over less, and thus opposing any relaxation in federal tax law.
It's surprisingly difficult to find dispassionate, non-hyperbolic views about the Johnson Amendment and the consequences of its reform-- particularly more modest amendments such as the proposal to allow incidental political activity. I take a closer look at some of the arguments below the fold:
Friday, September 15, 2017
As the use of donor advised funds grows, so does the legal attention to donor advised funds. All of this attention started in (what seems like forever ago…) 2006, with the passage of the Pension Protection Act. Since that time, we have seen the PPA-mandated Treasury study released in 2011, as well as a Congressional Research Service study on DAFs in 2012. In addition, the National Philanthropic Trust releases an annual DAF report, the 2016 version of which can be found here. Information and opinions abound, and yet, we still wait patiently for regulations under the donor advised fund excise taxes passed in 2006. I’m quite certain those regulations will be arriving Soon.™
In the latest installment in the DAF oversight drama, Congress may now be considering mandatory payouts from DAFs as part of a larger tax reform effort. Earlier this summer, Professors Ray Madoff of Boston College and Roger Colinvaux of Catholic University wrote to the Senate Finance committee to suggest a number of DAF reforms, including a mandatory payout proposal for DAFS (the Madoff/Colinvaux letter can be found here).
This week, the DAFs responded. In their own letter to Senate Finance, a number of DAF sponsors set out the arguments in opposition to a mandatory DAF payout. WealthMangement.com has a good summary of the DAF executive letter here, although I admit I can’t yet find a copy of the letter itself (if anyone has it ... please share if you can!)
Personally, I think that the term “DAF” covers such a wide variety of accounts that a mandatory proposal might be harmful for some and yet not enough regulation for others. But that’s another blog post, or maybe an article ….
Thursday, June 22, 2017
No one knows what is going to happen with tax reform, which means now is the perfect time to speculate wildly about how Congress may help or hurt tax-exempt nonprofits if and when it actually does something.
Tax Simplification: If Congress follows the President's lead and simplifies in part by sharply increasing the standard deduction, it will make the charitable contribution deduction irrelevant to an even greater proportion of U.S. households as the number of itemizers shrinks significantly. According to an Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy report, this change alone could reduce charitable giving by an estimated $11 million annually, and if combined with a lower top tax rate of 35% they could together reduce charitable giving by $13.1 billion. To put these figures in perspective, the most recent Giving USA report reported $282 billion in donations from individuals for 2016.
Non-Itemizer Deduction: One proposal to counter this effect is a charitable contribution deduction for non-itemizers, as long advocated for by Independent Sector among others. The Lilly Family School of Philanthropy report estimates that allowing non-itemizers to deduct their charitable contributions would more than offset the negative effect on contributions from the standard deduction increase and rate reduction proposals. That said, it is hard to see how this proposal could have much chance of success given both its revenue cost and the administrative and enforcement complexity it introduces, particularly in an era of reduced IRS examinations. For an analysis of some of these issues, see this October 2016 Urban Institute report.
The Ghost of Rep. Camp: While Dave Camp is not dead he is no longer in Congress, which you would think would limit his influence over current tax legislation. But he did something brilliant when he was driving the tax reform bus as Chair of the House Ways & Means Committee several year ago: he went through the laborious process of actually drafting legislative language and having the result analyzed and scored by the Joint Committee on Taxation. This means that both the specific language and revenue effects of each provision of the Tax Reform Act of 2014 is available to be pulled off the shelf and deployed immediately as part of any current tax reform legislation. As detailed on pages 535-598 of the JCT report, this includes numerous provisions relating to tax-exempt organizations, including a number of limitations on the existing charitable contribution deduction. Especially if some revenue raisers are needed to pay for other aspects of tax reform, I expect to see some of Rep. Camp's proposals reappear in current legislation.
The Charities Helping Americans Regularly Throughout the Year Act of 2017: Given the uncertainty about the content, timing, and even liklihood of major tax reform legislation, it is a good idea to have a backup plan. The CHARITY Act (I do not know where they got the "I" from) is a modest, bipartisan attempt to tweak the existing tax laws for tax-exempt charities. Its provisions include simplifying the private foundation investment tax under section 4940, making donor advised funds eligible for IRA rollover contributions, increasing the mileage rate applicable to personal vehicle use for volunteer charitable activities, creating an exception to the private foundation excess business holdings rules under section 4943 (can you say Newman's Own Foundation?), and an electronic return filing requirement for all tax-exempt nonprofits.
I look forward to months if not years of further crystal ball gazing on these topics.
Journalists have a constant interest in charity private benefit stories, particularly ones with a political angle. And unfortunately they seem to be able to find them. Recent reports raising questions about plain vanilla (non-political) private benefit have focused on a variety of donors and charities, including New England Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady, the James G. Martin Memorial Trust in New Hampshire, and billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong. But not surprisingly reporters have paid even greater attention to situations relating to politics and politicians, including ones involving the Eric Trump Foundation, Boston mayoral hopeful Tito Jackson, President Trump's chief strategist Stephen Bannon, and the Daily Caller News Foundation. These stories are distinct from ones relating to the use (and possible misuse) of charities for political purposes more generally, such as the recent article regarding the David Horwitz Freedom Center.
I should emphasize that none of these situations have resulted so far in any apparent civil or criminal penalties, and in some instances the facts described may not cross any legal lines. Indeed, the only one of these situations that appears to have drawn government scrutiny so far is the one involving the Eric Trump Foundation, which New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has said his office is looking into.
The same cannot be said of three other situations that involve the possible misuse of charitable assets. One, relatively minor situation relates to the admitted access of the Missouri Governor's political campaign to a charity's donor list without apparently the charity's knowledge or permission. Two other situations are more serious in that they each involve hundreds of thousands of dollars. In March, a federal grand jury indicted former U.S. Representative Stephen Stockman and an aide on charges relating to the alleged theft of hundreds of thousands of dollars from conservative foundations to fund campaigns and pay for personal expenses. (More coverage: DOJ Press Release.) And last month a federal jury convicted former U.S. Representative Corrine Brown of raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for a scholarship charity, funds that she then used for her own personal and professional purposes. (More coverage: N.Y. Times.)
The various lawsuits that grew out of the IRS exemption application controversy continue their slow grind with discovery ordered in the Linchpins of Liberty and True the Vote cases (which are before the same judge in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia), a protective order keeping the depositions of Lois Lerner and Holly Paz confidential in the class action NorCal Tea Party Patriots case in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio, a court-ordered July 24th mediation conference in the same case, and an April 21st hearing on the motion for partial judgment pending in the Freedom Path case in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, at which apparently nothing exciting happened as I could not find any media coverage of the hearing. In fact, as far as I can tell no one is paying any attention to these cases at this point except for the parties, their lawyers, a few minor conservative news outlets, and the Bloomberg BNA Daily Tax Report (the last two links are to stories by them (subscription required), and even they ignored the April 21st hearing).
In related news, the Federal Election Commission's inspector general's office recently concluded that FEC employees did not violate any rules when they communicated with the IRS about politically active groups. (More coverage: Bloomberg BNA (subscription required)). And Congress extended the various budget-related provisions it created in the wake of the controversy, including the prohibition on using any funds to issue guidance under section 501(c)(4) for the rest of the current fiscal year (so through September 30, 2017). Finally, the American Center for Law and Justice (which is representing the plaintiffs if some of the above lawsuits) announced that the Tri-Cities Tea Party received a favorable determination letter from the IRS under section 501(c)(4) seven years after filing its application.
Wednesday, March 15, 2017
In case we needed any reminders that litigation takes a long time, the past several months have seen a few minor developments in the litigation that grew out of the section 501(c)(4) application controversy that exploded in May 2013 (!). In no particular order:
- The Supreme Court denied certiorari in True the Vote, Inc. v. Lois Lerner, et al., No. 16-613, and a related case, rejecting the plaintiffs' attempt to get the Bivens claims against Ms. Lerner and other IRS officials reinstated. The underlying case of True the Vote, Inc. v. IRS, et al. continues in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia as Civil Action No. 13-734, without the Bivens claims and so limited to injunctive and declaratory relief, along with the related case of Linchpins of Liberty v. United States, et al., Civil Action No. 13-777, in the same court. UPDATE: I should have noted in my original post that a case raising similar claims is also proceeding in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas (Freedom Path, Inc. v. Lerner, Civil Action No. 3:14-CV-1537-D), although there have been no major developments in that case since a decision last May on the government's motion to dismiss.
- A class action lawsuit continues in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio, NorCal Tea Party Patriots, et al. v. IRS, et al., Civil Action No. 13-341, after the judge in the case ruled late last year that the IRS had to continue processing the application of one of the class members (the Texas Patriots Tea Party).
- Judicial Watch announced the IRS has discovered an additional 6,924 responsive documents relating to Judicial Watch's pending FOIA lawsuit against the IRS (U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, Civil Action No. 15-220); it is not clear if these documents contain any new information, and the timetable for public disclosure of the documents is uncertain.
At the same time, Republican leaders in Congress have shown no appetite for pursuing impeachment of current IRS Commissioner John Koskinen even as conservative members argue for it and the Trump administration has quietly avoided demanding Koskinen's resignation even in the face of calls to fire him. For recent coverage, see The Hill and the Washington Post. It is hard not to imagine that the Commissioner is silently counting the days until his term ends in November, however. It will also be interesting to see who will be willing to replace him in the current political environment.
Monday, March 13, 2017
Last year Congress began hammering away again at the topic of university and college endowments, sending letters to 56 private universities with endowments exceeding $1 billion about how they use that money (see, for example, this Washington Post story). Yet in in its current session the topic appears to have fallen off at the least the public legislative agenda. While this is likely in part because of the many other controversial items on that agenda, part of the explanation may also lie with the recent struggles universities and colleges have faced relating to their endowments. The most recent survey of endowment returns and spending showed both a negative return on average for the endowments at 805 institutions and increased spending for the year ended June 30, 2016, according to a Bloomberg story (see also this Washington Post story). These disappointing results in the face of increasing financial demands have led to the major restructuring of at least one endowment fund office, with Harvard University laying off half of its investment group's employees according to a Boston Globe report.
Affordable Care Act Repeal (and Replace?)
The effort to repeal (and replace?) the Affordable Care Act would almost certainly have major effects on nonprofit health care providers, particularly hospitals, as well as likely every nonprofit that provides health insurance or health care to its employees or beneficiaries. The Nonprofit Quarterly provides a good summary of the current version of the repeal and replace legislation, including its likely effect on nonprofits. The full text of the current bill is available here.
"Johnson Amendment" Repeal or Modification
OpEds and lobbying letters continue to proliferate even as it is unclear when legislation removing or modifying the political campaign intervention prohibition for charities will advance. Pending bills include:
- The Free Speech Fairness Act (H.R. 781 and S. 264), which would modify the prohibition so as not to apply to "any statement which (A) is made in the ordinary course of the organization's regular and customary activities in carrying out its exempt purpose, and (B) results in the organization incurring not more than de minimis incremental expenses."
- H.R. 172, which would remove the prohibition entirely but, in an apparent oversight, only from Internal Revenue Code section 501(c)(3) and so not from section 170(c)(2) and other sections relating to charitable contribution deductions.
The two House bills have been referred to the House Ways and Means Committee, while the Senate bill has been referred to the Senate Finance Committee.
Recently expressed views on the legislation including statements from Douglas Laycock (UVA), Edward Zelinsky (Cardozo), the Council on Foundations, a community letter campaign launched by the National Council of Nonprofits and others, a letter from 86, mostly progressive groups (including the National Council of Churches), and a published debate in U.S. News & World Report featuring Doug Bandow (Cato Institute), Alan Brownstein (U.C. Davis), Roger Colinvaux (Catholic University), Barry Lynn (Americans United for Separation of Church and State), and Matthew Schmalz (College of Holy Cross).
The year began with fears that tax reform could sharply limit the availability of the charitable contribution deduction through such measures as limits on itemized deductions and estate tax repeal (see, for example, this Forbes piece). There are, however some recent indications that Congress is moving away from measures that would limit the deduction for at least income tax purposes, and even considering expanding the income tax deduction in several ways (see, for example, this report from the Council on Foundations on recent comments by members of Congress). The Trump administration has yet to release its tax reform proposals, however, and tax reform generally is a moving target as this story from The Hill underlines.
Friday, February 3, 2017
...but gaining a tax deduction!
At the recent National Prayer Breakfast, President Trump stated:
It was the great Thomas Jefferson** who said, the God who gave us life, gave us liberty. Jefferson asked, can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God. Among those freedoms is the right to worship according to our own beliefs. That is why I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution. I will do that, remember.
Some may not know the term “the Johnson Amendment,” but I am guessing that most of the readers of this blog would be familiar with Code Section 501(c)(3)’s prohibition on election intervention (“and which does not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”) Famously, Lyndon Johnson was somewhat irritated by negative comments made by a tax-exempt organization (note: not a church… ) during his campaign for re-election to the Senate; thus the Johnson Amendment adding the prohibition on electioneering was born in 1954
Of course, “totally destroying” statutory provisions is traditionally the prerogative of Congress, so it remains to be seen whether this change will come to pass. A bill repealing the Johnson Amendment is introduced regularly each legislative session and rarely makes any progress; query if the current political climate would give it more traction. One wonders if the change takes the form of a repeal of the Section 501(c)(3) language (which would open electioneering to all c3s) or a special exception just for churches or religious organizations. Finally, would such repeal include rules that mirror the income tax provisions that disallow deductions for membership dues allocable to lobbying? If not, I suspect that a large number of political donors of all stripes will suddenly find religion right quick.
For further discussion of these issues, please see this piece by the most awesome Ellen Aprill in the Washington Post, who has probably forgotten more about the political and lobbying rules for nonprofits than I ever hope to know.
*With apologies to R.E.M.
**cough** This is me not commenting on the fact that Trump is quoting Thomas Jefferson, author of the First Amendment. Of course, all political commentary (or non-commentary, as the case may be) is my own individually and should not be attributed to anyone else. EWW
Wednesday, November 16, 2016
Given the uncertainty regarding the plans of both President-elect Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress, I feel a bit like a sportswriter trying to rank college football teams before the season begins when I try to predict what the results of the 2016 election will be for the federal tax laws governing tax-exempt nonprofit organizations. With that caveat, here are my initial thoughts.
With respect to guidance from Treasury and the IRS, most of what appears in the most recent update of the 2016-2017 Priority Guidance Plan that is relevant to tax-exempt organizations (see especially pages 9-10 and, for section 170 guidance, page 14) appears non-controversial and so likely to eventually see the light of day. The one major exception is proposed regulations under section 501(c) relating to political campaign intervention, which project the Republican-controlled Congress has repeatedly suspended and likely will continue to block until the new administration gets around to killing it altogether. Another possible exception are the final regulations under section 7611 relating to church tax inquiries and examinations, although my guess is that Congress will instead simply focus on modifying or repealing the section 501(c)(3) prohibition on political campaign intervention, consistent with the campaign promises by then candidate Trump.
Speaking of Congress, university endowments likely will see continued congressional scrutiny especially in light of President-elect Trump's mentions of the issue during his campaign. Whether such scrutiny results in actual legislation remains to be seen, however. What should perhaps be of greater concern to all charitable nonprofit organizations is the possibility that the detailed tax reform plan developed by now-retired Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp may be looked to for inspiration, especially when seeking revenue-generating provisions that could help offset tax cuts elsewhere. For a detailed overview of the many proposed changes relevant to tax-exempt organizations, see the Joint Committee on Taxation Technical Explanation of those provisions. Also relevant of course are proposed changes to the charitable contribution deduction, which are concentrated in section 1403 of the draft legislation. And of course there will also likely be effects on charitable giving from any general reduction of marginal tax rates or other broad changes, such as modification or repeal of the estate & gift tax.
For consideration of likely ramifications of the election results for nonprofits beyond just changes to federal tax law provisions, here are some early predictions from others: Devin Thorpe, Forbes Contributor (collecting thoughts from various nonprofit leaders); National Council of Nonprofits; Mark Hrywna at The NonProfit Times.
Tuesday, October 11, 2016
A recent article by Martin Levine highlights the struggle to define the line between providing education about issues and lobbying for specific legislative outcomes. The center of the controversy revolves around a complaint filed in 2012, when the Center for Media and Democracy and the Common Cause complained to the IRS that the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) was incorrectly classified as a 501(c)(3) organization.
The ALEC characterizes itself as an organization “dedicated to advancing and promoting the Jeffersonian principles of limited government, free markets and federalism at the state level. ALEC accomplishes this mission by educating elected officials on making sound policy and providing them with a platform for collaboration with other elected officials and business leaders.”
The ALEC’s opponents, however, paint a different picture of the organization, claiming “the primary purpose of the organization is to provide a conduit for its corporate members and sponsors to lobby state legislators.”
As evidence of this lobbying, opponents of the ALEC point to a string of tax deductible donations from EXXON to the ALEC totaling over $1.7 million. The ALEC’s official position on climate change only leads to increased suspicions. According to the ALEC, there is no threat to the public from climate change or increased greenhouse gasses. In fact, the ALEC has stated that global warming is beneficial, claiming that “during the warming of the past 100 years global GDP has increased 18-fold, average life span has doubled, and per capita food supplies increased.”
While this information is certainly not determinative of foul play, it does provoke one to question the line between information providing and lobbying.
Monday, October 10, 2016
With the Election approaching, many are voicing their opinion on the Johnson Amendment, which denies 501(c)(3) organizations the ability to actively campaign or lobby for a political candidate. Currently, in addition to being unable to support a candidate for political office, nonprofit organizations are also unable to oppose political candidates.
Proponents of the rule fear that allowing nonprofits to advocate for candidates could create unhealthy political factions within their organizations and communities at large. A larger concern is that donations from these organizations would be tax deductible and could exacerbate the level of spending and the political power of large scale donors, heavily influencing electoral outcomes. A statement from the Americans United for Separation of Church and State exclaimed “If individual organizations came to be regarded as Democratic charities or Republican charities instead of the nonpartisan problem solvers that they are, it would diminish the public’s overall trust in the sector and thus limit the effectiveness of the nonprofit community.”
Opponents of the rule, like Republican Party Nominee Donald Trump, believe that organizations have a right to voice their opinion for leaders they believe would best represent them. In a speech to Christian leaders Trump stated “if you like somebody or want somebody to represent you, you should have the right to do it.” Opponents also believe freeing 501(c)(3) organizations from these regulations would increase voter participation and elevate levels of political debate.
It is unlikely that this debate will be solved in the near-term, and certainly not in time to impact the nearing election. However, a fundamental change to the Johnson Amendment could drastically change the way campaigns are ran and financed.
Thursday, August 11, 2016
The "Tea Party" application controversy continues to take a toll on the IRS, even as the Service implements the congressionally enacted notice requirement for section 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations. First, the IRS suffered setbacks in two of the cases pending against it that grew out of the controversy:
- In Freedom Path, Inc. v. Lerner, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas rejected the government's motion to dismiss a First Amendment claim against the IRS, finding that the plaintiff's concerns regarding future curtailment of speech was sufficient to establish injury and that the case still presented a live controversy despite changes in the Service's processing of applications. Coverage: Bloomberg BNA Daily Tax Report.
- In True the Vote, Inc. v. IRS and Linchpins of Liberty v. United States, decided together although argued separately, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit reversed the lower court's dismissal of actions for injunctive and declaratory relief as against the government, concluding that those claims were not moot. (The appellate court did, however, affirm the lower court's dismissal of Bivens actions and statutory claims against individual government officials and the Service.) Coverage: Wall Street Journal. For blog posts discussing the opinion, see The Surly Subgroup (Philip Hackney) and The Volokh Conspiracy (Eugene Volokh).
Second, many Republicans in the House of Representatives continue to call for the impeachment of IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, not satisfied with his earlier censure by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on a party-line vote. (Coverage: The Hill; Politico; Roll Call.) Third, new documents relating to the controversy continue to trickle out from various sources, at a minimum providing an excuse to reassert claims against the Service and its (mostly now gone) officials. For example, see this Judicial Watch press release in the wake of it gaining access to approximately 300 pages of FBI documents relating to the FBI's investigation of the controversy.
And yet life still goes on, which in this instance means implementation of the new section 506 notice requirement for section 501(c)(4) organizations. That implementation has taken the form of Revenue Procedure 2016-41 and related final and temporary regulations (T.D. 9775). These documents detail how the notice requirement applies both to new section 501(c)(4) organizations formed after December 18, 2015 (the date of enactment for section 506) and to previously existing section 501(c)(4) organizations that had not yet either filed an application for recognition of exemption or an annual return. The required form is Form 8976, which can be submitted electronically here.
Wednesday, August 10, 2016
The NY Times is running a series of articles on the influence donors, particularly large corporations, appear to have over research conducted by some prominent think tanks. As its front page articles on August 8th and August 9th detail, many researchers associated with think tanks are paid consultants or lobbyists for corporate clients, and many think tanks also receive contributions directly from corporations that have an interest in the research the think tank is conducting. Some of the think tanks identified have either admitted to lapses in oversight or adopted more stringent conflict of interest and disclosure policies, but it is not clear how widespread such admissions or changes are within the think tank community.
While in theory reaching research conclusions that are helpful to donors or clients could constitute providing prohibited private benefit on the part of the think tanks, which are generally tax-exempt under Internal Revenue Code section 501(c)(3), the connections detailed in the articles seem too tenuous to support such a claim. This is especially true given both that proving a solid link between a donation and research results is difficult and that the think tanks identified generally engage in a broad range of research projects, only a small portion of which may be tainted by donor influence. Similarly, while some think tanks then arrange for meetings or conferences centering on their research and attended by government policy makers that might constitute lobbying for federal tax purposes, most such events likely fall outside of the technical definition of lobbying and the few that may not are almost certainly within the limited amount of lobbying permitted for tax-exempt charitable organizations such as think tanks.
Nevertheless, the stories are troubling because they throw into question the ability of government policymakers to rely on such research, as noted by Senator Elizabeth Warren in a video the NY Times posted with these stories. In its regular Room for the Debate feature, the NY Times therefore invited a number of commentators to suggest possible ways to address the concerns raised in its stories. Suggestions ranged from greater transparency about possible conflicts (including a certification process), better internal procedures to ensure unbiased research results, greater skepticism regarding those results on the part of journalists and others who report or rely on those results, and a diversification of funding sources (including ensuring various governmental funding sources) to support such research. I frankly am skeptical of transparency, certification, and internal procedure improvement if only because it may be too difficult for busy lawmakers, much less journalists and other members of the public, to shift through various disclosures or to determine what certification schemes or particular think tanks are reliable. I believe the diversification of funding sources idea has more promise, particularly if there are (nonpartisan) ways for government agencies to provide such funding conditioned on accurate, unbiased results. Bottom line, this strikes me as not a narrow federal tax issue but a larger issue about how to incentivize truth telling in public policy research.
Friday, August 5, 2016
Twin Cities Pioneer Press reports that two private colleges alone in Minnesota have combined endowments of over $1.5 billion. This seems wonderful in a time where education budgets are on the chopping block. However, critics of the colleges and universities contend the institutions need to be less scrooge-like and spread the wealth to meet the financial needs of their students. “Private foundations with nonprofit status must spend five percent of their fund’s value each year under federal law.” But, this requirement does not apply to colleges and universities.
As of 2013, there were 138 educational institutions with over $500 million in endowment. A study of 67 private schools revealed that just over half of those schools did not meet the 5 percent mark required by other nonprofits. With an estimated 40 percent of college students receiving Pell grants, it is clear that there remains unmet financial needs for students.
An official from one of the colleges studied said “it’s unfair to expect colleges to spend their endowments at the same rate as charitable nonprofits. If a college’s endowment earns 7 percent but they spend 5 percent, it won’t grow fast enough to keep up with inflation.”
Time will tell if the Legislature will require colleges and universities to meet the five percent mark as their nonprofit peers must. With the rising cost of education, one can assume debate will arise sooner than later.
Thursday, August 4, 2016
A recent post on Non Profit Quarterly by Ruth McCambridge explains tensions between nonprofits in big cities (Such as D.C. in this article) and the legislature. In Washington D.C., nonprofits occupy over $10 billion worth of real estate, which could generate over $111 million per year in tax revenue. Instead, the district collects nothing from them.
Two universities in the district alone account for $48 million in uncollectable property tax revenue. The District is considering the idea of making a change requiring payments in PILOT form, but has been pondering this idea for nearly fifty years.
Undoubtedly, these institutions bring an immense amount of revenue to the District, through research, attracted talent, and general expenditures by students and faculty. However, it is not clear if these benefits outweigh the costs of not receiving property taxes.
It is estimated that currently 28 different states have municipalities that collect PILOT payments; however these payments amount to far less than what the property taxes would have been worth.
It will be interesting to see if the legislature changes the current set up. Between the federally owned tax-exempt buildings, and those occupied by nonprofits, the district is missing out on over one billion dollars of tax revenue.
Thursday, July 28, 2016
A recent post by Benjamin Leff on The Surly Subgroup highlights the 50+ year ban on 501(c)(3) organizations (here, specifically churches) “intervening” in a campaign for public office. Arguments for and against the ban range from an infringement of free speech, to churches using their power to distort the electoral process. However, the main issue discussed is that although churches want to get in to court to challenge the ban, they believe the IRS won’t let them. For a compelling read on how these organizations may be granted their “day in court” and some possible reform suggestions, read the above linked post.
Thursday, June 23, 2016
With the election season coming up (errr, well underway), the ban on 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations supporting or opposing a candidate for political office will no doubt be cited, critiqued, and misunderstood by countless pundits and nonprofits. For Purpose Law Group has a blog post tracing its interesting history:
First, the total ban on political campaigning for 501(c)(3) charities was offered as a last-minute, “non-germane” amendment to the massive new Internal Revenue Code; and, second, Senator Johnson’s rationale was based on a significantly incorrect characterization of the 1934 lobbying restriction.