The National Football League is no longer a tax-exempt organization. Embattled Commissioner Roger Goodell — who has endured one embarrassing scandal after another involving the bad behavior of some of his players, recently announced the NFL is voluntarily relinquishing its tax-exempt status.
Would credit unions ever consider voluntarily giving up their long-cherished tax-exempt status?
Unlike the CU industry, the NFL is a massive sports and entertainment conglomerate that generates billions of dollars of revenue annually.
In a letter dispatched to the owners of all 32 NFL teams, Goodell said the league office in New York and its management council will start to file tax returns for fiscal 2015.
But he cautioned that little will change in how the ultra-popular league is run.
"Every dollar of income generated through television rights fees, licensing agreements, sponsorships, ticket sales, and other means is earned by the 32 clubs and is taxable there," the Commissioner wrote. "This will remain the case even when the league office and Management Council file returns as taxable entities, and the change in filing status will make no material difference to our business."
"The effects of the tax-exempt status of the league office have been mischaracterized repeatedly in recent years," Goodell wrote. "The fact is that the business of the NFL has never been tax-exempt." He also noted that team owners supported the move to change the league office's tax status.
But given that football stadiums are largely funded by taxpayers (and that Goodell himself earns at least $30 million annually, more than any NFL superstar — and greater than the asset size of a lot of credit unions), many view the league as a cash cow that gets too many freebies from the public trough. Not to mention, the NFL also serves as a monopoly that has somehow avoided or defeated various anti-trust challenges.As for credit unions, another enterprise that has long enjoyed tax-exempt status, the situation is not quite analogous to the NFL.
Individual credit unions have a federal exemption from corporate income taxes (one of the hallmarks of the industry), but they do pay property, sales and other taxes.
Additionally, NCUA is already exempt from paying federal taxes.
Still, in light of the NFL's recent decision and as football fans across the nation have their eyes on the ongoing draft, Credit Union Journal asked CU experts what it would take for credit unions to voluntarily relinquish their own tax-exempt status.
Dennis Dollar, an Alabama-based credit union consultant and former NCUA Chairman, said the chances of credit unions giving up their tax-exemption would be similar to the odds of the NFL going back to the prehistoric days of the 1930s when it existed as a very precarious, unstable league featuring poorly-financed clubs and constant relocations by shaky franchises.
"As the tax exemption is directly related to the not-for-profit cooperative structure of credit unions — which is something the very profitable NFL could never claim as part of its heritage — I think the odds of credit unions voluntarily giving up their tax exemption... would be similar... to the likelihood [of] the NFL [going] back to the uniforms, equipment, number of teams and the TV contract they had in the 30s," he told Credit Union Journal. (Of course, TV did not exist in those halcyon, poverty-stricken days)
Similarly, Jim Nussle, CUNA president and CEO, quipped that credit unions will voluntarily change their tax status "when pigs fly."
"Congress provided the credit union federal tax-exemption because of the not-for-profit, member-owned, community-based cooperative structure of credit unions," Nussle said. "The credit union tax status benefits all consumers — credit union members and non-members alike — to the tune of $10 billion annually because credit unions are fulfilling their special mission to serve Americans."
Nussle further noted that, in fact, 102 million credit union members already paid a total of $1.2 trillion in taxes in 2014.
"A new tax on credit unions would be a new tax on middle class families," he added.
Patty Briotta, Director of Public Relations at NAFCU commented that credit unions return their earnings to their members in the form of low fees and competitive interest rates as an explanation for their tax-exemption.
"Credit unions serve to provide checks and balances in the marketplace, benefitting credit union members and bank customers," she said. "We answer to our members and the continuing growth in membership validates the value of our existing business model and the services we provide. That speaks for itself."
Finally, Ben Rogers, research director at Filene Research Institute, suggested jokingly only the "onset of mass hysteria" would prompt credit unions to give up their tax exemption.
"When I talk to credit unions about this [subject ], most see taxation as a possibility they might have to consider, but none of them see an advantage they would be willing to trade the exemption to get," Rogers noted. "The exceptions, I suppose are the credit unions that convert (or try to convert) to mutual savings banks, [like] HarborOne [the Boston-area credit union that changed its charter to a co-operative bank charter in 2013]."
In cases like that, Rogers indicated, the board and management "usually see a compelling enough business proposition in unfettered commercial lending or a radically altered field of membership to give up the exemption."
But for the vast majority of credit unions, pigs would have to fly first, Rogers added, echoing Nussle's exact imagery.