Friday, December 14, 2012

Charitable deductions and college sports

One of the elements supposedly "on the table" in budget negotiations between the president and the speaker of the House is the charitable deduction. This "tax expenditure" will cost the federal treasury about $230 billion over five years, so it's a low-hanging fruit for revenue seekers. Negotiations have turned to how to change the deduction — eliminate it entirely or place a limit on how much in charitable donations a taxpayer can deduct.

Having worked for two 501(c)(3) nonprofit, tax-exempt charities, I can tell you that revoking the charitable deduction would be devastating to every charity from your local church to the Cancer Society or Heart Association. Charities rely on individual and corporate donations to meet their budget. Without a charitable deduction, much of that revenue would dry up, and I have no doubt that many charities would go out of business.

There may be some simple ways, however, to increase federal revenue without having a deleterious impact on charitable activities. One change to the IRS code could not only increase federal revenue but could also improve higher education and reduce the corrupting influence of big-time intercollegiate athletics.

Simply eliminate the tax-exempt charitable status of athletic booster clubs. Boosters can now give millions of dollars (as a Duke alumnus did recently) to their alma mater's athletic program and claim a tax deduction. Giving to the Rams Club or Wolfpack Club does not contribute to the educational mission of the university. In fact, these athletic donations probably harm the university's mission of educating young men and women. Such donations skew the university's role by encouraging outlandish coaching salaries and lowering academic standards to accommodate athletics.

If you want to support your alma mater, you should give to the university, not to the sports team that represents the university, and the nation's tax code should make that distinction clear. Taxpayers should not subsidize intercollegiate athletics by having to make up the revenue lost when booster club donations are deducted from taxable income.

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