As congressional negotiators hammer out the details on an enormous, unnecessary tax cut, the potential negative impact on Tampa Bay and Florida is becoming clearer. The harmful consequences stretch far beyond adding more than $1.4 trillion to the federal debt over the next decade to pay for tax cuts that tilt toward businesses and the wealthy. In ways both big and small, the fallout would be felt throughout the region and the state in ways that would hurt local communities, families and the cultural and political fabric of public life. Among the many provisions that should be rejected:
• Softening the ban on churches and charities engaging in politics. The House bill follows through on President Donald Trump's campaign pledge to overhaul the Johnson Amendment and let religious leaders and nonprofits endorse political candidates. The nonpartisan congressional Joint Committee on Taxation calculates the change could mean $1.7 billion a year now contributed to political committees could be steered to churches instead. That is absolutely the wrong direction, and churches and charities should be institutions that bring people together rather than further divide them into political camps.
As the Tampa Bay Times' Tracey McManus reports, the Church of Scientology could use the change to further exert its destructive influence in Clearwater and Pinellas County. Scientology, which owns more than $200 million in property in Clearwater, does not need additional levers to pull. This is one of the many examples of how Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, voted against the interests of this community when he voted for the House tax cuts.
If Congress really wants churches and charities to engage in endorsing political candidates, it should revoke the tax exemption for those groups.
• Eliminating tax-exempt bonds to build or renovate stadiums. As the Times' Steve Contorno reports, that could add millions to the cost of a new baseball stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays. It also would make it more expensive to improve existing facilities such as Raymond James Stadium and spring training facilities that stimulate the local economy. The Joint Committee on Taxation projects eliminating the exemption would save the federal government $200 million over the next decade, but local taxpayers would wind up covering those costs one way or another.
This provision in the House bill makes for a good sound bite, but it's shortsighted. It would make it more difficult for Tampa Bay to protect its investments in publicly owned stadiums, and it would make it even harder to keep Major League Baseball in the region.
• Eliminating private activity bonds. Eliminating private activity bonds would increase the cost of borrowing money for big infrastructure projects for community amenities such as airports, colleges and universities, ports and nonprofit hospitals. The Joint Committee on Taxation estimates eliminating these bonds would save the federal government nearly $39 billion over 10 years.
Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, a member of the conference committee resolving the differences between the House and Senate bills, says this change would add $263 million to Tampa International Airport's plan to use these bonds for construction projects. Now bonds are expected to be issued soon to lock in the tax exemption. Adding such costs to important public works projects that benefit an entire community in order to lower the cost of tax cuts would be a mistake.
• Eliminating or reducing tax credits. Affordable housing tax credits, historic preservation tax credits and others are all on the table. As Castor points out, the Hillsborough County Housing Finance Authority has financed more than 5,000 rental units in Tampa and the county using affordable housing tax credits. Historic preservation tax credits were used to help finance the renovation of Tampa's former federal courthouse. Metropolitan Ministries used the New Market Tax Credit to help redevelop a blighted area and create a large facility for feeding and helping homeless families. None of these tax credits are worth sacrificing to help pay for tax cuts for big businesses and the wealthy.