Reforming the Taxation of Exempt Organizations and Their Patrons
David S. Miller
This Article contemplates a radical reformation of our entire system for taxing exempt organizations and their patrons.
First, all non-charitable exempt organizations that compete with taxable commercial businesses (such as fraternal benefit societies that provide insurance (section 501(c)(8)) and credit unions (501(c)(4))) would become taxable. Also, business leagues, chambers of commerce, and the Professional Golf Association and National Football League would be taxable but could operate as partnerships. Thus, section 501(c)(6) would be repealed.
Most other tax-exempt organizations would be reassigned into one of five categories, corresponding roughly to current section 501(c)(1) (U.S. governmental organizations), section 501(c)(3) (charitable), section 501(c)(4) (social welfare), section 501(c)(7) (social clubs, but stated more generally as mutual benefit organizations), and retirement plans.
The Article leaves section 501(c)(1) entirely intact, and largely leaves section 501(c)(3) alone, except that it proposes that certain very large public charities with “excessive endowments” be taxable on their investment income to the extent the income is not used directly for charitable purposes.
This Article also generally leaves section 501(c)(4) alone, except that any 501(c)(4) (or other tax-exempt organization) that engages in a significant amount of lobbying or campaigning would be taxable on all of its investment income.
The fourth catchall category – corresponding roughly to the tax treatment of social clubs ‒ would cover virtually all other tax-exempt organizations (other than retirement plans). Very generally, these organizations would not be subject to tax on donations or per capita membership dues, but would be taxable on investment income, fees charged to non-members, and fees charged to members disproportionately.
The Article proposes two significant changes to the treatment of donors. First, section 84 would be expanded to treat any donation of appreciated property to a tax-exempt organization as a sale of that property. Second, any donation to a tax-exempt organization that engages in significant lobbying or campaigning and does not disclose the name of the donor would be treated as a taxable gift by the donor (subject to the annual exclusion and lifetime exemption).
Finally, this Article proposes two measures of relief for tax-exempt organizations. First, the unrelated debt-financed income rules would be repealed. Second, limited amounts of political statements by the management of 501(c)(3) organizations (like election-time sermons) would not jeopardize the tax-exempt status of the organization.