2014-02-14 / Columns

Politics & other Mistakes

Dropkick me, Jesus (through the goalposts of life)
By Al Diamon

Are you there Angus? It’s me, God.

I’m getting in touch, Sen. King, because, even though I’m supposed to be all-knowing, I’m totally flummoxed by your effort to impose taxes on one of my most cherished institutions. It has come to my divine attention that you’re attempting to persuade your colleagues in Congress to repeal the tax exemption on the holy institution of professional football.

Dude, what are you thinking?

Correct me if I’m wrong (like that ever happens), but my saintly sources (in New Orleans, mostly) inform me that you’re co-sponsoring something called the Properly Reducing Over-exemptions for Sports Act or, as it’s commonly known, PRO Sports, which has to be the worst abbreviation since Moses tried referring to the Ten Commandments as X-Com.

Look, Angus, I know the federal government is strapped for cash, but that’s hardly the fault of the National Football League. Its teams may have sweetheart deals for stadiums, its owners may be philistines, its players may be devil worshippers – but the NFL pays taxes of the profits on the $9 billion it collects every year that isn’t protected by other tax shelters. Its central office, the only part of the operation that’s completely tax exempt, runs itself on a mere $200 million annually, much of which goes to pay the salaries of Commissioner Roger Goodell ($29.5 million) and his six top aides ($32 million). Those are big paychecks, even by heavenly standards, but they’re all currently taxable.

If the PRO Sports Act passed, it would force the NFL, the National Hockey League and the Professional Golfers Association to pay taxes on their administrative entities, but the amount it would generate comes to a measly $10 million a year. That wouldn’t pay for polish for the Pearly Gates, let alone cover the assorted budget shortfalls at the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

We’re talking chump change, hardly worth the bother. Even for a mere mortal.

If you want to mess with tax exemptions, Angus, take my venerable advice, and go after something substantial.

Like churches.

Don’t look so shocked. I may be God, but I’m much more of a football fan than I am a supporter of earthly religions, which – despite their stated spiritual purposes – are mostly petty, flawed institutions focused on personal foibles, internal strife and unseemly distractions.

Sort of like the Dallas Cowboys. Only with less attractive cheerleaders.

And these religious institutions are avoiding taxes to the tune of $71 billion a year.

According to a 2012 study by a University of Tampa professor, churches used their exemption to stiff state and local governments for more than $26 billion in property taxes. They also skipped paying capital gains taxes estimated at $41 million, more than four times what your puny bill would extract from the NFL, NHL and PGA combined.

These figures represent conservative estimates, say those who’ve analyzed the study. “This is probably just the tip of the iceberg,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

The problem with anyone – even your friendly neighborhood deity – getting a more accurate read on church fi- nances is that there isn’t much documentation. “Religious groups are subjected to very minimal reporting requirements in the United States,” said Rob Boston, director of communications for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, in an email. “Unlike secular non-profits, they are not required to file any forms providing information about their budgets and financial holdings.”

In Maine, a 2013 legislative study determined that imposing a limited property tax on exempt entities such as private schools, hospitals and foundations would have generated about $100 million for municipalities. But that research didn’t include religious institutions. If it had, that figure would have been (my best godly guess) $30 million higher, enough to cover most of the municipal revenue-sharing deficit in the current state budget.

Look, Angus, I heap blessings upon you for having the courage to go after a sacred cow like the NFL. But even if you were successful in taxing pro football, all you’d be doing is forcing some poor sap at Gillette Stadium to shell out even more than the nearly 40 bucks it costs for two beers and two hot dogs. I’d have my son turn water into wine and multiply some loaves and fishes for folks like that, but NFL rules prohibit outside vendors.

Churches, on the other hand, would do what I’ve told them, which is to turn the other cheek. They’d render unto Caesar by selling the bishop’s mansion or requiring the parson to downgrade from a tricked out GMC Sierra (official vehicle of the NFL) to a used Nissan Versa (offi- cial vehicle of the Rev. Buncombe’s Bible study class).

I have spoken.

It’s almost as if something took possession of my soul and wrote this week’s column for me. You can send whatever it was an email at aldiamon@herniahill.net.

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