While the Feds debate the future of the charitable deduction (among many other aspects of the tax code), some states are diving in with modifications to their own tax subsidies to charity. Michigan, for instance, will apparently permit a tax credit for donations (available for the past forty-plus years) to expire at year’s end.
Naturally, nonprofit leaders are distressed and are giving voice to their concerns. The Nonprofit Quarterly reports:
According to Michigan Radio, the credit allows Michigan taxpayers to essentially double their contribution when they give to community foundations, homeless shelters, food banks, and public institutions (such as Michigan universities, museums, public libraries, and public broadcasting stations).
The tax credit has been eliminated as part of the governor’s plan to pay for a business tax cut. According to the Detroit News, 250,000 made use of the credit in 2010, and it earned $100 million for Michigan charities and provided $40 million in write-offs.
You won’t find the Nonprofiteer cheering any endeavor designed to pay for a business tax cut, especially when it’s so well-documented that many businesses pay nothing like the nominal rate–or even pay nothing at all. But it’s too simple, and not exactly correct, to argue that the tax credit earned $100 million on a $40 million investment. First, we don’t know how many of those gifts to charities would have been made anyway. Second, as is the case with all tax subsidies, the money taken from the public fisc doesn’t support the same public purposes it would if the taxes were paid. If Michigan traded $40 million worth of public schools and police officers for $100 million worth of private schools and university police forces, is it really better off? The allocation of funds matters as much as, if not more than, the raw amounts.
NPQ further quotes a representative of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan:
Studies have shown that people give to charity because they care about the cause, but tax policy influences how much people are able to give . . . . We anticipate that with the loss of the tax credit, people will give to charities they’ve supported in the past, but they will give less because it costs them more.
She may be correct, but that’s actually less an argument for maintaining the credit than for raising the tax rate on individuals. The higher the tax, the greater the value of any tax subsidy, and therefore the more likely individuals are to make tax-subsidized gifts.
That’s the theory, anyway. We’ll all be interested to see how this turns out.
And meanwhile, the Cook County Assessor has begun the process of returning Northwestern Memorial Hospital buildings to the property tax rolls, after a court ruled they were not “charities” and therefore not entitled to continued exemption under the state Constitution. The Illinois situation is worth watching because it represents a modification to tax subsidies not by the legislature but by the courts–meaning something not subject to public pressure or comment.
The Nonprofiteer is NOT arguing against “activist judges,” or any nonsense of that kind. The Illinois Supreme Court’s rulings in this area have been (in her view) utterly within the four corners of the Illinois Constitution. She’s merely making the point that sector-wide outcry will have no impact on judicial changes to the tax environment–which means that one way or another we’ll all find out soon how important tax subsidies really are.