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Recent editorials published in Iowa newspapers

May 15, 2017

Des Moines Register. May 11, 2017

Give churches freedom of speech, but why freedom from taxation?

It’s not clear what Lyndon Johnson was thinking in 1954. The then-U.S. senator introduced an amendment to a bill that prevented some tax-exempt organizations, including churches, from engaging in political campaign activity. Congress adopted it without debate. Lawmakers later strengthened the ban. Courts have upheld it.

None of this means the statute makes sense. There is certainly a case to be made that free speech rights should not be tied to tax status for any organization. And Congress can certainly vote to change the law if it chooses.

But President Donald Trump is still figuring out how this “branches of government” idea works.

Last week he signed an executive order he said would free churches from restraints imposed by the law. Seeking to garner as much attention as possible, the signing was staged in the Rose Garden with activists, faith leaders and nuns. They were serenaded by a string quartet.

The order will “prevent the Johnson Amendment from interfering with your First Amendment rights,” Trump declared.

Well, no it won’t. The executive order does essentially nothing.

In fact, groups preparing to sue over what they expected the document to contain said there was no need after they saw the final version. The American Civil Liberties Union called the order “an elaborate photo-op with no discernible policy outcome.” Even conservative groups recognized it as little more than a “gesture.”

Then again, the Johnson Amendment is little more than a gesture. It is essentially meaningless because it is not enforced.

Some religious leaders have intentionally flouted the provision in law, trying to draw attention to themselves annually on “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.” They tell their congregation which political candidates to support and face no consequences from the Internal Revenue Service.

“We record our sermons, as have many several thousands of pastors, and then send their sermons to the IRS in hopes of provoking a lawsuit. But we have not been successful,” a California pastor told CNN last year.

The IRS could take action. It could revoke the preferential tax status of churches. But it doesn’t. After being starved by Congress for several years, it doesn’t have the staff. It also likely doesn’t have the stomach for the certain political backlash. And the IRS may not even know some churches exist, as they are not required to apply for tax-exempt status and are generally not required to file annual forms with the agency.

A 2014 report from the Government Accountability Office noted budget cuts at the IRS have led to “a steady decrease in the number of charitable organizations examined.” In 2011, the examination rate was 0.81 percent; in 2013, it fell to 0.71 percent, lower than the examination rate for other types of taxpayers, including individuals and corporations.

Translation: Pretty much anyone can open a “church,” avoid taxation and engage in political activities with no fear of repercussions. And with pressure from the president to leave these entities alone, the IRS is even less likely to scrutinize them.

The question Trump should be asking: Why are churches exempt from taxation in the first place? That could spur the larger conversation this country needs to have about reforming the entire, antiquated federal statute on tax-exempt status. Use of the exemption has run amok.

About 1.6 million organizations, including about 400,000 religious entities, do not pay taxes. That drives up the federal deficit, hurts local governments and forces the rest of us to pay more to compensate. Among the activities our additional tax contributions support: politicking pastors who proudly and loudly violate federal law.

Washington policymakers should ensure everyone has freedom of speech, but revisit who gets freedom from taxation.


Fort Dodge Messenger. May 11, 2017

Iowa leads nation in egg production

Egg production is big business in Iowa.

The Hawkeye State has more than 50 major egg producers. The state’s nearly 60 million layers generate a remarkable 14.4 billion eggs each year, making Iowa the No. 1 egg-producing state in the nation.

The Iowa egg industry is a big purchaser of Iowa’s other agricultural products. The state’s layers consume 57 million bushels of corn and 28.5 million bushels of soybeans every year.

This industry also contributes mightily to a positive employment picture in Iowa. According to the Iowa Egg Council, egg producers are responsible for about 8,000 jobs that generate $424 million each year in income for employees and $19.3 million annually in general tax revenues for the state.

Iowa, Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania and California are the top five egg-producing states in the United States. Together, they account for 50 percent of this country’s egg production. In the nation as a whole, some 300 million egg-laying hens generate well over 200 million cases of shell eggs per year.

Americans don’t eat as many eggs as they once did. Even so, eggs remain a popular food choice and consumer demand remains high. Per capita egg consumption was 402 eggs per year at its high point in 1945. Today it’s in the neighborhood of 250 eggs per person each year and has been holding fairly constant in recent years.

Most of the nation’s egg production goes toward meeting that demand, but egg producers also make a positive contribution to our nation’s export economy. U.S. eggs and egg products are sold worldwide.

May is National Egg Month. The next time you consume this tasty product, enjoy the moment but reflect also on the egg industry’s importance to Iowa.


Quad City Times. May 12, 2017

House of Hope fix already exists

There’s a way around a wholesale rewrite of Davenport’s zoning rules, now under fire because of the city’s short-lived shuttering of Timothy’s House of Hope.

Make the church-run homeless center get a special use permit.

Emotion hijacked the policy debate about Timothy’s and its new site in northwest Davenport. The blame falls to a member of Davenport City Council who just couldn’t resist belittling the poor.

But at its core, the real issue is one of proper zoning. It’s about neighborhood input. It’s about upholding appropriate oversight of fire and food safety code.

Davenport regulators shuttered Timothy’s because it offered food service, which, as of 2012, no longer squared with Washington Street’s C-2 commercial zoning. The classist rants of a certain elected official doesn’t change that.

Businesses owners within a stone’s throw of Timothy’s have concerns. And at present, their only course of action is to issue general gripes to the City Council, as the city mulls retroactively legalizing the food operation at Timothy’s. They’re left asking questions about how this would all play out once Timothy’s resumed operations, potentially as early as Monday morning.

The council must balance two equally important matters here. Timothy’s House of Hope serves an important and noble function. But it’s also true that, as with most zoning changes, nearby property owners have a vested interest in what’s going on up the block. Property values, by and large, are a function of neighborhood.

The special use permit process is well established. It would guarantee a full vetting and a forum for a necessary community conversation in front of the Davenport Zoning Board of Appeals. And perhaps of greatest import, it would ensure that Timothy’s House of Hope doesn’t receive special treatment not afforded to other organizations, religious or not.

The operators of Timothy’s, Compassion Church, would have a strong case in such a forum. The building it now occupies was formerly Mohassan Grotto, which operated a kitchen and then some. The site’s recent history should bode well for Timothy’s if it were to seek a site-specific exemption from existing zoning.

The special use permit would require Timothy’s to adhere to fire and occupancy regulations. It would be contingent on the facility meeting basic standards of upkeep and maintenance. It could dictate hours of operation. It would exist only as long as Timothy’s inhabits 1602 Washington St. and keeps its kitchen running. And it would leave Timothy’s the option to adjust its operations in the future and simply seek a new permit.

What’s now proposed is tantamount to taking a framing hammer to a deck screw. Blunt force isn’t always the answer. The special use permit is the appropriate tool here.

Unfortunately, an elected official’s crassness sent the reasonable conservation about Timothy’s and its place in the community off the rails. It’s imperative that Davenport City Council segregate the ugly rhetoric from the policy at hand.

Conflating the two does no one any good. But that’s what’s now happening as the City Council considers rewriting its zoning code in order to accommodate one organization.

It’s an unnecessary overreaction when a better solution already exists.

Correction: The original draft misidentified which board would handle a special use permit application. It would go before Davenport’s Zoning Board of Appeals, not Plan and Zoning Commission.


Sioux City Journal. May 11, 2017

No easy answer exists in North Korea standoff

No one — at least no one outside North Korea — will argue North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is unpredictable, if not unstable.

And he’s working to achieve a goal of nuclear-armed missiles.

To say that’s a volatile mixture is to define the word understatement.

In what arguably is the most difficult overseas threat to the United States and its allies facing the administration of President Donald Trump, North Korea continues to launch missile tests, thumb its nose at pressure to stop, and make threats, including threats against the United States.

Where does this end?

Today, the answer to that question is as murky as the view from outside North Korea is of life inside the secretive country. Troubling doesn’t begin to describe this tension-filled standoff for which no simple answers exist.

As America and other nations, including China, strategize (together, we hope) about North Korea, we prefer to hear measured instead of aggressive rhetoric from our leaders here at home.

In our view, saber-rattling serves no useful purpose in dealing with Kim. Certainly, American power is no secret to him; we don’t need to flex our military muscles, they speak for themselves.

In other words, we see little to no upside, but a possibly dangerous, provocational downside to remarks like this one, offered by President Donald Trump in an April 27 interview with Reuters: “There is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea. Absolutely.”

Rather, we believe more potential value exists in the kind of talk we heard from Trump during an interview with Bloomberg News on May 1 when the president said he would be “honored” to meet with Kim face to face “under the right circumstances.”

We cringed at use of the word “honored,” but we do not dismiss altogether the idea of a high-level meeting of some kind between U.S. and North Korean leaders (as well as leaders of other nations in the region because this isn’t only America’s problem) at some future point if it would reduce nuclear stress and uncertainty.

Of course, a spectrum of considerations would require discussion before any such meeting happens.

Nuclear weapons raise stakes. Nuclear weapons in the hands of someone like Kim raise them still more. In response, nations involved in and impacted by this dispute, including the U.S., should seek to turn down the heat and pursue constructive dialogue. The alternatives are, frankly, unthinkable.


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