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Looking out for taxpayers by looking at donations

Charles Grassley

Iowa City Press-Citizen

January 27, 2007

[Note: This material is copyright by the Press-Citizen, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the Iowa City Press-Citizen.]

As a proud alumnus of a state university up the road in Cedar Falls, I appreciate the dynamics and school spirit generated by intercollegiate athletics. It's been a while since my days at the University of Iowa for graduate study, but I still enjoy athletic events at Kinnick Stadium or Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

Tax-advantaged donations help beef up UI's competitive athletic program. In the last academic year the university raised $20 million donated by boosters and businesses, all earmarked for the Hawkeye's athletic department. Nationwide, athletic boosters funneled $845 million to major college athletic departments in 2004 and 2005. It's common practice to offer incentives to patrons of intercollegiate athletic programs, including parking perks and luxury suites in exchange for donations. Donors can deduct 80 percent of contributions made for deluxe seating in a public school's athletic facility.

Charitable giving to tax-exempt and nonprofit organizations that benefit the public is a vital part of the American spirit, and it's encouraged in many ways through the federal tax code. As chairman of the U.S. Senate's tax policy committee starting in 2001 -- and now as the ranking member -- I have a responsibility to look out for the credibility of tax-exempt status. I started a broad-based review of the way these tax laws were being used after Sept. 11, 2001, when questions were raised about how the American Red Cross used donations made to help victims and their families recover from the terrorist attacks.

Since then I've scrutinized abusive use of foundation tax structures, misuse of dollars given to the United Way, questionable land sales by the Nature Conservancy, fine art donations that leave paintings in donors' living rooms rather than museums, loopholes used to write off entire safari trips by donating stuffed animals that sat in dusty rail cars, and the extent to which nonprofit hospitals provide charity care to the needy.

Until my effort began, Congress hadn't looked at the tax laws governing nonprofits since 1969, even while the size of the tax-exempt sector of our economy exploded. Today tax-exempt organizations, including charities, control $11 trillion in assets. The federal government foregoes the collection of about $280 billion each year from these groups. What's not paid here is paid by the rest of the taxpayers, so Congress needs to make sure that those enjoying the special tax benefits are acting for the public good.

My questions about whether special tax breaks for contributions earmarked for athletic departments ought to qualify as tax-deductible donations to an educational institution are part of this overall effort. Colleges and universities are chartered to provide an accessible, affordable higher education to the taxpaying public. So we need to understand how federal tax deductions that help build deluxe stadiums and pay for skyboxes improve access to higher education and help students pay for college. If athletic donations enhance a university's overall mission, then who polices the funding stream to ensure accountability as to how those tax-advantaged dollars are spent?

In Congress, I succeeded in making tax-free savings plans for college a permanent part of the tax code, created the deduction for tuition, and secured the tax deductibility of interest on student loans. Government-guaranteed loans allow families to borrow money for college, but they can't keep up with double-digit tuition hikes. I chaired a congressional hearing in December to look at how our efforts to make college an affordable stepping stone to prosperity for more low- and middle-income families have a hard time keeping up as college tuition rates and fees continue to run away.

I'm working to learn more about how college administrators and trustees oversee how athletic departments spend tax-advantaged contributions and how those resources work to make college more accessible and more affordable. The goal is to maintain donor confidence in charities overall and make sure tax-exempt status, in fact, means a public good is served. Tax-exempt organizations need to keep up their end of the bargain and make sure the taxpaying public has something to cheer about both on and off the field.
Charles Grassley is Iowa's senior U.S. senator.