Recently the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill to allow houses of worship damaged by Hurricane Sandy to receive federal disaster aid from FEMA. I wonder how many readers know that this aid is in the form of grants, not loans, which would allow churches, temples, synagogues, mosques, and other religious edifices to receive federal tax dollars to rebuild. What I find interesting is that after large, damaging storms, there are loud voices that object to the money FEMA spends to help people who have lost everything. The claim is that these people should have had insurance, they knew the risk of living where they did, they were foolish to choose a home near the beach, flood plain, etc. For the most part I agree with these objections with some exceptions not worth mentioning here. But what I am puzzled by is that the Republicans tout individual responsibility, risk/reward, and that the government shouldn’t be the paymaster for things that go wrong in people’s lives. (Yes, some Democrats voted for this bill too, but according to the Republicans, the Democrats love taxes and spending anyway, so according to them, Democratic support for the bill should be no surprise.) One has to also keep in mind that it was the same House that was reluctant to provide reconstruction money to New York and New Jersey using the same arguments that I mentioned. I, for one, would sure like to know what influenced their voting for this FEMA addition.
In these times of trying to figure out ways to cut spending, eliminate special interest tax breaks, here is another one that seems to be a sacred cow: the special exemption from federal taxation for all “legitimate” clergy for most of the money they spend for housing. And yes, that would include some of the high profile ministers with seven figure incomes when combined with benefits. No secular staff members of nonprofits are eligible for this perk. No teachers or other volunteers that work in ghettos for low pay can claim this deduction. What makes clergy members so special that they get a tax paid housing subsidy? Clergy are also in a unique category that allows them to opt out of Social Security. While I have no issues with Social Security, I know all too many people that have said that they wish they had a choice to leave the system and take their chances with investing their own money. Then there is the question of why churches do not have to file annual paperwork concerning their finances, paperwork that every other tax exempt 501 (C) (3) is required to complete. I have read that preparing the form for the IRS is very labor intensive and costly. Do any readers remember the pushback that Senator Charles Grassley got a few years ago when he proposed auditing some of the mega churches that paid whopping salaries and benefits to their spiritual leaders, and had complexes that would rival something a major corporation would envy? I can only wonder how much money from these sacred institutions is legally and illegally not going into the treasury.
Consider too that churches don’t pay property taxes, but they get police, fire, and other public services that the rest of us have to pay for. And each time a new church goes up on property that a church purchased, it is another parcel taken off the tax rolls. Any guess who has to make up the shortfall? Ironically, The Atlanta Free Thought Society (AFS) purchased on old, historic church. AFS is a 501 (C) (3) that does a lot of charitable work in the community for the small organization that it is. Yet it pays a sizeable sum in property taxes. They don’t object to paying the taxes, but rightfully so, they do have a legitimate claim of disparate treatment. Do you think the churches would complain if asked to contribute to the public services they now get from the taxpayers that subsidize them? Count on it!
The AJC reported on 2/21/2013, that a host of business entities, through their paid lobbyists, are seeking from the Georgia General Assembly special tax breaks. Former Governor Roy Barnes in his 2009 campaign identified over 200 businesses that received special tax considerations. We all know the arguments that are used to protect these interests: they create jobs, they provide incentives for businesses to locate in Georgia, they add to the community’s tax base, they help the poor, and on and on. I can assure you that as a small business owner, if I got the same tax breaks I would hire people and take on jobs that presently I consider too small and not worthwhile because of the taxes. Amazingly, the Tea Party---among others---promotes a policy of no new taxes and cutting spending. Here’s an opportunity to go after some religious and business sacred cows. It’s long overdue. I’ve heard enough canned speeches from our local congressional delegation and Senator Johnnie Isakson to last a lifetime about how we need to change the tax code. But if you asked any of them if they have put together a team of outsiders with tax and business expertise to come up with a draft of some serious tax revisions, the answer would be no. They benefit from the campaign contributions from the very special interests that need to pay up. In the meanwhile, we, the working stiffs, are paying for this outrage.