Justice We Pursue

Tax Day April 15th

Yesterday I filed my federal and state income taxes, joining thousands of others who wait for the last minute. And for good reason -- unlike most years, I needed to cough up some April dollars because last year’s withholdings were a little short.

“Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society, “ said Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and I can say I paid mine honestly and with some civic pride. I want to contribute to the public good and I feel good about my fidelity to the democratic processes of our national, state, and local governments, even when I intensely dislike some of the expenditures that make their way into earmarks or unaccountable government contracts.

But nagging in the back of my mind is the sense that maybe I’m a chump. My faith in civic duty is rattled when I think about millions of tax cheaters, and that vast amounts of tax revenues are lost mostly because people with great resources routinely figure out ways to shield income and avoid taxes. Naive wageearners like me have to pay full-freight because, unlike Leona Helmsley, we cannot hide behind complex loopholes and hidden havens. Like most of us I’m a wage earner. My W-2 is pasted on my forehead and the IRS knows where I work and where I live.

The nominal amount I pay could fluctuate quite a bit before I’d feel differently about my taxes. More than anything I want to know that I’m carrying a fair share of the load. I guess that makes me a relativist. The idea that people with more income pay less than me or that people with less resources would pay more violates my sense of justice. I don’t want to feel like a chump. I want the system to be fair.

Is Minnesota’s tax system fair? Every two years our Revenue Department publishes a “Tax Incidence Study” (historical note: JRLC successfully lobbied for the creation of this report back in 1990) that attempts to show how the state and local taxes in Minnesota are shouldered by households in various income categories. The report is 155 pages of analysis, tables, and charts. The focus is on what we know about tax year 2012, and what we predict for tax year 2017 under current tax law, using the November, 2014 forecast.

Read the report here. Or if you just want a quick visual summary, look below. I’ve tried to sum it up in a graph and a table. Bottom line: Compared to 2012, every income group will pay a little less as a percentage of income in 2017. The exception is the richest 10 percent of households — their overall tax rate rises from 10.5% to 10.7% in tax year 2017, due in part to the new 4th tier income tax rate that passed in 2013. It should be noted, however, the richest 10 percent of households still pay less than the statewide average tax rate of 11.4%.

Comparing 2017 to 2012, the slope of the chart’s line is a little less regressive. So, the tax system in Minnesota is getting a little more fair. Happy tax day!

Brian Rusche, Executive Director


A Seat With A View: Why Advocacy?

I’ll admit, when I started at JRLC I was a bit on the cynical side and mistrustful of our political process. I wrote papers throughout seminary critiquing systems that persisted in disenfranchising minority groups, and suspected power was actually consolidated among an elite few. Before joining JRLC, I’d most recently managed a crew of canvassers during election season that door-knocked for labor-endorsed candidates in targeted districts. Canvassing was a good experience but I still felt removed. Seminary and canvassing hadn’t directly exposed me to the policy world and I still hadn’t seen how accessible our government actually was.

A Better View
These past five months at JRLC I’ve witnessed the political process differently from the inside. After the election resulted in a split legislature, I feared JRLC’s agenda would flop, not enjoying near its 2014 success. But our Organizer Jennifer, ever the optimist, impressed upon me this simple refrain: never see anyone (from either party)—as more than merely temporary opposition—because people and circumstances can always change. We’ve all had front row seats to that very phenomenon this year with bi-partisan bill authorship on all four of JRLC’s major initiatives!

Even more I’ve been influenced by our generous and active membership. You’ve won me over. From my desk as Office Manager I’m struck by your sheer numbers and by how frequently you support us; I get checks in the mail every day. Last month, at Day on the Hill, I oversaw your registration and was inspired by your warm and engaged energy. Nearly 700 of you went up capital hill to lobby in all but two of Minnesota’s 67 senate districts. For over 30 years many of you, old and new, return each Spring because your work influences Minnesota policy! I can’t stay cynical when I see how your tireless efforts improve quality of life for those who can’t find a seat.

Through my work at JRLC I’ve learned that advocacy is not only effective, but also a fundamental pathway to justice.  I’ve discovered the political process is penetrable, fluid and ever changing, and yet it requires collective collaboration to harness. The committed involvement of groups like ours change policies and provide greater access to seats at the table here in Minnesota. Although many marginalized segments of our community still lack access, and have good reasons for mistrusting the system, the rest of us sense a responsibility to stand with them and advocate for their rights. While for many of our veteran members this is old-hat, for a young, fresh first-timer like me, this clear view into advocacy has been a revelation.

Steven McCormick, JRLC Office Manager 

Exodus Lending is Open For Business!!

When payday lenders opened up in their Minneapolis neighborhood, Holy Trinity Lutheran church got concerned. More importantly, they got educated and they got active. Holy Trinity has been working with JRLC and Minnesotans for Fair Lending to bring attention to the debt trap of payday lending and seek stronger regulation of the predatory industry. Seeking this regulation is a process that continues today, as the matter fell just short of final passage in the Minnesota Legislature last year.

That isn’t all they did. They began to explore ways in which they could help those caught in the debt trap. From that exploration came Exodus Lending, a new Minnesota non-profit officially launched this week that is designed to help people escape the payday lending debt trap.

Exodus Lending Logo

The model of Exodus is simple. They pay off the debts owed to a payday lender on behalf of their clients. Those clients still owe the money they borrowed, but instead pay back Exodus in simple installments free from fees with 0% interest. However, the financial assistance doesn’t end there. Clients are set up with savings accounts, savings goals, financial counseling, and a coach to help them through the process. When they complete all of these steps successfully, Exodus contributes money into their savings account to help them be prepared for unexpected future costs rather than consider another payday loan.

The launch of this new venture couldn’t come at a more fitting time. Passover, a holiday commemorating the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt,  begins on Friday April 3. Christians are currently in the midst of observing their Holy Week which culminates with Easter Sunday, a time when they celebrate their belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus to free people from their bondage to sin.

In a week in which many of JRLC’s members commemorate and celebrate liberation within their faith tradition, we join with Exodus Lending to celebrate this new opportunity for struggling Minnesotans to find liberation from their financial bondage.

Autopsies and Religious Freedom

This past February 11th, the family of Fond du Lac Ojibwe band member Autumn Martineau braved the cold wind and gathered around a Spirit Fire. The family was waiting for the county Medical ExamFamily members of Fond du Lac Ojibwe band member Autumn Martineau, stand around a "spirit fire" on the Fond du Lac reservation on Feb. 11, 2015. The family fought to not have an autopsy conducted on Martineau's body after she was killed in a car crash. Dan Kraker | MPR News fileiner, the local county attorney, lawyers, and a judge to determine who had rights to Martineau's body, and whether an autopsy was to be performed. Hours earlier she had been killed in a single car accident and her family objected to an autopsy for spiritual and cultural reasons. Incredulously, the very same dispute and legal wrangling involving the same Medical Examiner and a member of the Mille Lacs Band had played out only 10 days earlier. Both stories have since received coverage in the Duluth News-Tribune and on MPR.

A few weeks later JRLC was asked to join with representatives of the Mille Lacs Band and the Fond du Lac Band to draw up a legislative proposal that would clarify in Minnesota law that family members have a right to object to autopsies based on religious or cultural practices, or as a matter of conscience, just as our right of religious freedom in both the US and Minnesota Constitutions promise.

We were happy to support the effort. The JRLC Sponsors felt strongly that the power of the state to override religious or spiritual objections in a time of loss and bereavement should be limited to only rare circumstances where there is a compelling state interest.

We discovered that current state law governing medical examiners and autopsies is sorely lacking, giving almost complete discretion to medical examiners, leaving families only one recourse — obtain a lawyer and seek a court order — to assert religious rights. It was clear that our cherished religious rights needed explicit statutory expression. The recent events showed that Medical Examiners alone should not be the sole arbiter of such matters, and that families should not have to engage attorneys and petition judges to assert a basic constitutional right.

As with all lawmaking there are balances to be struck. There are circumstances where the public does have a compelling interest in autopsy findings such as collecting crime-related or emergency public health information, and no one was asking to skirt these necessary practices. One part of balancing the public interest with religious rights is to make it clear that autopsies, when necessary, be conducted in the least intrusive manner possible.

It is our sense that most Medical Examiners are respectful when talking to families from diverse religious and spiritual practices and are able to accommodate everyone's needs and concerns. Clergy and other spiritual leaders are often involved in these conversations.

However, we believe all parties would benefit from clarity in the law, and that legislation is needed to make it clear that families have a right to raise religious objections, and that the exercise of our beliefs should not be burdened absent a compelling state interest.

The bill moving forward is HF 1935 (Green) and SF 1694 (Lourey). Governor Dayton has indicated his support.

Photo Credit: Dan Kraker | MPR News file

Minnesota Lottery Gone Wild?

We should be very concerned about the saturation of Minnesota's gambling market and the pressures now felt by all gambling operators to increase their revenues by more aggressively marketing their products. Here at JRLC we have a clear-eyed understanding of the social harms of gambling and the true costs we all pay for seemingly “easy revenue.”

The Minnesotan Lottery, an agency of our own state government, recently noticed that sales were lagging among younger people, and then decided to expand its product offering by expanding their activities to Internet gambling. Has the Lottery gone wild? At the very least, this marketing shift, made without legislative approval, should sound the alarm bells and have us all revisit the question of what we ask of our state lottery, and whether it now has reached a point of asserting unhealthy bureaucratic imperatives.

JRLC supports Rep. Davids' HF 51 and Sen. Koenen’s  SF 188, which would halt the expansion of state-operated Internet gambling, and hopes that this bill will focus attention on the marketing strategies of our State Lottery and make sure they reflect true public purpose.

JRLC is one of the few interest groups that bothers to pick up the rock that is gambling and report on what crawls underneath. Gambling is a damaging public finance tool, and is harmful to the community as a whole. Gambling relies heavily on exploiting problem gamblers for its revenue. Any expansion in our state’s lottery will spur even greater marketing efforts and more incentives to attract new customers, thereby creating more problem gamblers. Efforts to expand state-operated gambling isn’t just an expansion of gambling activity, it’s an escalation of a harmful industry.

JRLC keeps abreast of the scientific and academic literature on gambling in the United States. The best evidence shows that social costs outweigh social benefits by a margin of 4.7 to 1. It is also true that about 80% of the lottery's revenues come from about 15% of the customers. In other words a few players play, and lose, a lot.

The State of Minnesota is operating a guaranteed losing proposition. We should no longer gloss over the very real costs of problem gambling that can be counted in increased crime, business and employment costs, bankruptcy, suicide, illness, social services, regulatory costs, family costs, and unpaid debts. We should no longer ignore the fact that our lottery is a very regressive, inefficient revenue-raiser.

JRLC offers this wisdom distilled from centuries of religious thinking and moral thought: Gambling is prohibited in the tenets of many faith communities, while in other faith traditions gambling may be tolerated, but only as a temporary amusement to raise money for a good cause, and never as a substitute for public stewardship.

Article XIII, Sec. 5 of the Minnesota State Constitution starts with a plain, outright ban on lotteries. Voters in 1988 provided for an exception — the sale of lottery tickets by a lottery authorized by the state. We need to remember the Lottery exists as an exception to a general ban and efforts to enlarge the exception should be viewed with utmost caution. oppose the expansion of gambling and increased state reliance on gambling revenues.

Brian Rusche, JRLC Executive Director