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On Philanthropy: Charity “Grand Bargain” strained by Religious Nonprofit Tax Exemption

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Over a century ago, Mark Twain prophetically cautioned that “no church property is taxed and so the infidel and the atheist and the man without religion are taxed to make up the deficit in the public income.” In 1937, 73% of Americans said they were a member of a church. A Gallup survey in 2020 revealed that only 47% of U.S. adults now belong to either a church, synagogue or mosque; that number drops to slightly over a third (36%) for millennials, born between 1981 and 1996, a fifth of the U.S. population. Only some respondents attend religious services with any regularity.

Under existing laws, churches, synagogues, mosques and many other religiously affiliated organizations qualify for tax exemptions and deductibility of contributions. The charity “Grand Bargain” in the U.S. allows organizations performing charitable, religious, educational and scientific services to exist as “nonprofit” organizations. In return for their presumed contribution to the public good, such nonprofits are tax-exempt, typically relieving them from paying any income, sales or property taxes to local, state and federal governments. Also, donations to support those organizations are usually tax-deductible, resulting in the loss of additional tax revenue.

Bruce DeBoskey

The “Grand Bargain” is based, in part, upon the premise that tax exempt organizations do important, good work in and for society that would otherwise be the responsibility of government entities. Ironically, religious organizations, while some may do charitable work, exist primarily for religious worship and instruction, which the U.S. and state governments are constitutionally prohibited from performing.

Religious organizations, however, benefit from every one of the services that taxpaying residents and businesses fund, including fire and police protection, emergency medical services, roads, parks, sanitation, public schools, public lands, forests and parks, health care, and national defense, to name a few.

Because of the lack of transparency of most religious nonprofits, it is impossible to calculate exactly how much revenue is lost because of these tax exemptions. Some estimate that churches alone own $300 billion to $500 billion in untaxed property, but many observers believe that number is low.

The guesstimated annual loss of revenue from religious institutions from federal and state income taxes, property taxes, investment taxes and a few others is no less than $71 billion (some estimates are billions higher), not including any municipal property and sales taxes.

In addition to tax exemptions, in 2020, 28% of all tax-deductible U.S. giving, $131 billion, went to religious institutions. Unlike nearly all other nonprofits, however, religious nonprofits are not required to file annual tax returns revealing information about how the donations were spent. With zero transparency and very little information from which governments can conduct oversight, no one knows whether donations are being used to provide charity work, support religious instruction and practice, or to fund private perks.

The favorable tax treatment of religious organizations has led to some stunning abuses. Pastor Joel Osteen’s church in Houston, and its affiliated media businesses, earn an estimated $75 million a year, and the Church of Scientology’s annual income is estimated to exceed $500 million. Televangelists’ ministries earn tens of millions of dollars from their diverse media enterprises, without any requirement to report how the money is spent, including revealing enormous salaries, extravagant lifestyles and homes, fancy cars and private jets. All of this property and income evades taxation.

We all pay more for the essential services provided by local, state and federal governments because tax revenue is lost by the special tax treatment afforded religious nonprofits. It’s time to ask some very important and difficult questions, such as:

  • Does an honest cost/benefit analysis of the religious organization tax exemption and donation deductibility demonstrate that they make good economic and policy sense for 21st century U.S. society?
  • Why do we permit the complete lack of transparency for religious nonprofits by exempting them from filing the same tax returns required for all other nonprofit organizations that would provide some accountability for how their tax-advantaged dollars are spent?
  • Does a nonprofit activity engaged in by a minority of citizens warrant the generous tax benefits (and corresponding burden on others) without a careful and thoughtful analysis by our governments about whether and how the charity “Grand Bargain” should apply?

These questions raise challenging issues and will be hard to answer. But, let’s face it — the charity “Grand Bargain” is broken in many ways and desperately needs reexamination, especially in this time of enormous societal challenges. The religious organization tax exemption is another powerful example of how what once may have made sense, may no longer work for 21st century American society.

Bruce DeBoskey, J.D., is a philanthropic strategist working across the United States with The DeBoskey Group to help families, businesses, foundations and family offices design and implement thoughtful philanthropic strategies and actionable plans. He is a frequent keynote speaker at conferences and workshops on philanthropy. Visit deboskeygroup.com or @BDeBo

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Cam Talbot shines as Wild top Oilers 4-1 for seventh straight win

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Cam Talbot shines as Wild top Oilers 4-1 for seventh straight win

EDMONTON — The last time Cam Talbot faced the Edmonton Oilers, he was throwing punches at center ice with Oilers goaltender Mike Smith in an infamous brawl in a Battle of Alberta between the Calgary Flames and Oilers, two seasons ago that made highlight reels all across North America.

On Tuesday night, Talbot made the highlight reel for all the reasons he’s paid for. Stopping pucks.

The former Oilers goaltender was spectacular, making 38 saves as the Wild beat Edmonton 4-1 at Rogers Place.

Joel Eriksson Ek, Marcus Foligno, Victor Rask and Dmitry Kulikov tallied for the Wild, while Jesse Puljujarvi scored the lone marker for the Oilers as Minnesota extended its win-streak to seven games, while the Oilers have dropped three straight contests.

The Wild improve to 18-6-1 and remain in top spot in the Central division.

“I’ve been back in this building a couple of times, but never got the start,” Talbot said. “It’s nice, this place will always have a place in our heart, we started our family here and it was a great building to play in and I still have a lot of great friends here. It’s one of those things where you look to come back here every time and it’s even more fun when you get a big win.

“I can’t say enough about the way we closed out the game. You don’t want to have lulls in the game, but give the guys credit, they just found a way to battle and win the hockey game.”

The Wild’s special teams haven’t been great this season, but they clearly won the special teams battle against Edmonton, which boasts the league’s best power play and its penalty kill is in the top-5.

Minnesota scored once on the power play and denied the Oilers potent power play on all five of their opportunities.

“Our penalty kill was outstanding tonight, I can’t say enough about them,” said Talbot, who is 2-0 in three appearances since being dealt away from the Oilers two seasons ago. “We weren’t giving them those Grade A chances that they’re accustomed to, and with the statistics coming in you wouldn’t think the power-play match-up would favor us, but we got a big one (power play goal) early, and our penalty kill did a great job, so give our special teams a ton of credit tonight.”

The Oilers have been notoriously slow starters out of the gate, giving up the first goal in 14 of the team’s first 23 games, and the Wild made it 15 as Eriksson Ek scored a power-play marker just 1:11 into the contest.

They went up 2-0 just 6:03 later as Foligno buried a cross-ice feed from Matt Dumba.

Edmonton’s high-octane offence, led by superstars Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl got rolling in the second period as they put all kinds of pressure on the Wild, who continue to play without top defenseman and captain Jared Spurgeon, but the Oilers were only able to cut their deficit in half, despite outshooting Minnesota 20-6 in the middle frame.

“They played really well in the second period, but we really liked our regroup and how we played in the third period. We did a lot of real, real good things,” said Wild coach Dean Evason. “They’re going to get shots and to not give that second and third gritty ones to them. Obviously Draisaitl and McDavid are special players. They’re going to get their opportunities to shoot pucks, but it’s that second and third one, that not only did Cam do a good job of smothering, but our second forward, we got pucks the heck out of that area, so they didn’t have more opportunities like that.”

Talbot made several big saves in the second period. He robbed Draisaitl with a left pad save as the former Hart Trophy winner tried to beat him with a one-timer, backdoor. In the final minute of the period, he stretched out to make a right pad save off of Tyson Barrie, who was wide open in the slot.

But his best save came early in the third when he dove across to deny Darnell Nurse of the tying goal.

“I knew that he was there, but obviously you have to stay patient with the guy in the slot first,” recalled Talbot. “But our guy did a good job of going down and taking away the lower part of the net, and I was able to see the pass right away and I knew Nurse was down there and I just tried to get everything in front of it.”

Moments after the big save off Nurse, the Wild scored on a delayed penalty as Victor Rask scored his fourth goal of the season to give Minnesota some breathing room and then Kulikov showed off some slick hands on a breakaway goal to give the Wild a 4-1 lead with 5:03 remaining to put the game away.

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Ellison: State, localities reach agreement on distributing $300M in opioid settlement

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Ellison: State, localities reach agreement on distributing $300M in opioid settlement

Minnesota moved another step closer this week to unlocking roughly $300 million from a settlement with Johnson & Johnson and the three major U.S. drug distributors in connection to the nation’s opioid painkiller addiction crisis.

Attorney General Keith Ellison announced Monday that the state had reached an agreement with Minnesota counties and cities on how to distribute the state’s share of a pending $26 billion national settlement agreement. The state and local governments had to reach an agreement by Jan. 2, 2022, in order to maximize the amount they receive from the national settlement.

Municipal governments will receive 75% of the settlement funds while the state will receive 25% to help pay for opioid addiction treatment and prevention. The most recent estimate from Ellison’s office projects Minnesota state and local governments will receive $296 million over the next 18 years.

The settlement agreement with Johnson & Johnson and the “big three” drug distributors — Cardinal, McKesson and AmerisourceBergen — is just one of several fronts in ongoing nationwide litigation against drug makers, marketers and wholesalers in connection to an epidemic of opioid painkiller addiction across the U.S.

The settlement stems from investigations by state attorneys general from across the U.S. into whether the distributors failed to screen and stop suspicious drug orders, and whether Johnson & Johnson misled patients and doctors about the addictive nature of opioid painkillers.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 38 people died a day in 2019 of prescription opioid overdoses, totaling about 14,000 deaths. Lawsuits filed against drug makers such as Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, estimate hundreds of thousands of Americans died of opioid painkiller overdoses between 1999 and 2015, while millions became addicted. About 5,500 Minnesotans died as a result of the addiction crisis, Ellison said.

In a statement issued with Ellison’s announcement, Pat Baustian, president of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities and mayor of Luverne, noted the addiction epidemic’s “devastating impact on families and communities throughout Greater Minnesota,” and expressed appreciation for the state’s efforts to cooperate with local governments on distributing the funds.

“Although no amount of money can make up for the loss of life, the funding from these national settlement agreements will help our communities provide services and resources to address this crisis,” Baustian said.

The state settlement fund will be overseen and distributed by the Opioid Epidemic Response Advisory Council, according to Ellison’s office. Under current state law, the state opioid abatement fund distributes to local governments, but the agreement between the state and local governments requires the parties to change the law in the 2022 legislative session, according to Ellison’s office.

The local government abatement fund created by the settlement money will be allocated to all counties that participated in the settlement. It will also include municipalities that have a population of 30,000 or more, have a public health department or filed a lawsuit against the defendants in the settlement.

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Centennial’s Streets at SouthGlenn on track to get more housing as retail sector scrambles amid challenges

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Centennial’s Streets at SouthGlenn on track to get more housing as retail sector scrambles amid challenges

City leaders in Centennial expressed strong and unanimous support Tuesday night for a plan to allow The Streets at SouthGlenn shopping center to add a lot more housing while curtailing the amount of square footage dedicated to shopping — a reflection of the rapid adjustments that commercial property owners here, and nationwide, continue to make amid ongoing upheaval in the retail sector.

The council did all but take a final vote, which won’t occur until Monday. But it was clear from comments from every council member Tuesday that they will be voting in favor next week.

Centennial’s discussion comes less than a month after Littleton narrowly approved a redevelopment plan for the Aspen Grove shopping center that will allow up to 2,000 residential units where none exist now. It also allows retail space to be reduced by half.

And just last month, East West Partners announced plans to pump life into a 13-acre area west of Denver’s Cherry Creek Shopping Center, an effort the developer said will include a “significant residential” component.

David Garcia, policy director at the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at the University of California at Berkeley, said what is happening in metro Denver is part of an “emerging trend” in the country, where the changing retail landscape is dovetailing with an acute housing shortage in many urban areas.

Earlier this year, several lawmakers in California introduced legislation to make it easier to convert commercially zoned property into residential use to address the state’s housing shortage, he said. Metro Denver has its own housing crunch to deal with.

“There is such a demand for housing,” Garcia said. “It follows the trend of trying to put existing land to the highest and best use.”

At The Streets at SouthGlenn, a 77-acre outdoor shopping district laid out on a street grid with familiar brands like Whole Foods, Best Buy and Snooze, the maximum number of allowable housing units would go from 350 to 1,125, while the minimum amount of retail space as outlined in the shopping center’s agreement with the city would drop from just over 900,000 square feet to 621,000 square feet.

RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

The Streets at SouthGlenn in Centennial is pictured on Dec. 7, 2021.

There are approximately 750,000 square feet of retail at The Streets at SouthGlenn now and just over 200 housing units, said Don Provost, founding partner at Denver-based Alberta Development Partners. The shopping center, owned by Alberta, opened a dozen years ago at the southwest corner of East Arapahoe Avenue and South University Boulevard, replacing the long-forlorn SouthGlenn Mall that sat at the location for decades.

He said the reconfiguration at SouthGlenn is necessary in a retail environment that has been battered by consumers moving their dollars online, a phenomenon that has only quickened during a pandemic that complicates face-to-face transactions.

“There has been an acceleration in the last 15 years, and especially in the last five years, with online shopping,” Provost said. “We want the existing retail (at SouthGlenn) to thrive. The core of the retail remains.”

The plan to add hundreds of homes to The Streets at SouthGlenn largely revolves around finding a way to best fill space opened up by a recently shuttered Sears store at the site, and a Macy’s that is set to close in March — two big box retail formats that have fallen out of favor among shoppers.

Alberta is partnering with Northwood Investors, which owns the empty Sears building. Construction on the new housing could begin late next year, with new residents moving in in 2023 or 2024, Provost said.

“We need to look at enhancing the long-term viability of SouthGlenn,” he said.

And that means determining what the mix of shopping, entertainment and residences needs to be to “make that retail more productive,” said Neil Marciniak, Centennial’s economic development director.

The Streets at Southglenn contributes around $3 million a year to Centennial’s overall $40 million sales tax haul, Marciniak said. While he said cities “live and die” by their sales tax collections, their shopping centers have to evolve with the larger market.

“What is that appropriate mix to prepare for the future?” Marciniak said. “All shopping centers need to be looking at their tenant mix, their land use mix. Consumers want an experience.

1638943298 592 Centennials Streets at SouthGlenn on track to get more housing

RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

The Streets at SouthGlenn, pictured on on Dec. 7, 2021, is looking at a potential change to decrease the retail space and up housing in the area. Sears has closed its doors at Streets at SouthGlenn.

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