Taxation, in principle, should not fund charities

Published 12:00 am Monday, September 8, 2008

Suppose you get a new job and you’re told your pay will be $10 per hour.

Suppose you get your first check and it reflects a rate of $9 per hour.

And then suppose you go to the payroll office and ask what’s up and you’re told, “Well, this company’s owners support the International Widows and Orphans Fund, so we take out 10 percent of every employee’s check as the company’s donation.”

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How would you feel about that?

And if you didn’t like it, would that mean you didn’t agree that widows and orphans needed help?

The story isn’t fictional. It illustrates a decision made by the Warren County Board of Supervisors a couple of years ago. That’s when board members opened a Pandora’s Box by seeking and getting permission from the Legislature to make donations of taxpayers’ money to charities selected by the supervisors.

The reason special laws have to be passed each year to authorize the donations is that otherwise some would be illegal.

It’s a touchy area. Taking a position against this practice risks being accused of not favoring the work or success of Jacqueline House, the United Way, Boys and Girls Clubs or any of the other causes for which supervisors collect tax dollars from every property owner or car-tag buyer in Vicksburg and Warren County.

But there’s a principle involved here, and it is this: Charitable giving is, by definition, voluntary. It’s why churches don’t charge admission. It’s why an employer who deducted money from a worker’s wages to make a charitable donation without the worker’s permission would be in violation of federal labor standards.

We’re not talking about insignificant amounts of money here. Supervisors, who voted last week to raise everyone’s taxes this year, asked to spend $613,700 for in-kind and donation gifts from local funds this year and will ask for another $603,700 next year.

It’s also true from a political perspective that how an elected official spreads around the public purse is something an official expects to be remembered when re-election time rolls around. But, again, that’s not why almost all cities and counties in Mississippi follow the law and don’t seek private enactments.

For one thing, much of such spending is legal, depending on what the public gets in return.

City and county officials may buy ads in school, church and club program books. They may advertise during special events, such as the Miss Mississippi Pageant. Laws allow the spending of 1.5 percent of a total budget for community promotional purposes.

The city and county also approve “in-kind” allocations to private entities such as Red Cross, Haven House Family Shelter, The Initiative, the Vicksburg-Warren Humane Society and others for providing contractual-type services. Supervisors could legally operate a veterans service center, but pay the Red Cross to do it. Vicksburg could legally fund shelters for people in crisis or transients, but pays others to do it. The county could have an animal control officer on its payroll, but contracts with the humane society.

Other allocations amount to “forced giving,” a self-contradicting term. It doesn’t mean the groups receiving money are not engaged in good works. It just means that it’s wrong, in principle, for elected officials to write checks to charities from the taxpayers’ checkbook.

It would prove difficult for the board, having turned on  this tap, to turn it off — even if they wanted to do so. But it’s a practice other local governments have avoided, and it shouldn’t pass unnoticed here.