Don’t Tax My Credit Union
CUNA, leagues, CUs, and members send a message to Congress.
Credit unions and their members are taking extraordinary measures to deliver an urgent message to federal lawmakers: “Don’t tax my credit union!”
They’re heeding a call from CUNA and the state credit union leagues to join the fight to preserve credit unions’ tax status as policymakers in Washington, D.C., consider rebuilding the tax code from the ground up.
“Policy is being formulated on Capitol Hill now, so we must act now—we can’t wait,” says CUNA President/CEO Bill Cheney. “It’s rare that credit unions call on their 96 million members to take action, but our members are the best spokespeople we have, especially on an issue as vital to our future as this.
“Once members realize what’s at stake, they’re our best allies in this fight,” Cheney continues. “They get it. And members understand that, while we work on their behalf to preserve credit unions, we need their voices to be heard loud and clear in the national policy discussion. Any tax on credit unions is really a tax on members because credit unions are cooperatively owned by the people they serve. If credit unions were taxed, credit union benefits to members and communities would be lost, and a consumer-friendly option in the financial marketplace would vanish.”
That fact, and a heightened tax threat, is what motivated CUNA and its affiliated state credit union leagues to launch the nationwide grassroots- mobilization campaign urging Americans to deliver a united message to Congress.
“Preserving the credit union tax status and the benefits it conveys to members is always a top priority of CUNA and the leagues,” Cheney explains. “What’s changed is that Congress is talking about starting tax reform talks with a blank sheet of paper. They’re no longer just talking about closing loopholes. A blank sheet of paper means everyone has lost their tax exemption— not just credit unions—and must fight their way back into the tax code.”
CUNA is making the case for credit unions’ tax status on multiple fronts. Among them are:
“We can’t assume members understand the value proposition of credit union membership,” says Paul Gentile, CUNA’s executive vice president of strategic communications and engagement. “We must work collaboratively to communicate it to them. CUNA is giving credit unions the tools they need to take the ‘value’ message to their members. Like all effective communication efforts, we need to be consistent and continue to tell our remarkable story.”
CUNA launched a consumer-facing website, DontTaxMyCreditUnion.org, complete with an educational video and links for advocates to take action by contacting their members of Congress via email or social media. Social media—using the @CUNA advocacy handle and #DontTaxMyCU hashtag on Twitter, and the CUNA Advocacy account on Facebook— is a key component of the campaign.
CUNA’s Tax Status Advocacy Toolkit (available at cuna.org) contains images, Web banners, a suggested action plan, newsletter articles, sample email communications to members of Congress, suggestions on how to use social media to back advocacy efforts, and other tools.
Credit unions and their state leagues have wasted no time in spreading the message, “Don’t tax my credit union!”
CUS DECLARED TAX-EXEMPT IN 1917
Credit unions were declared tax-exempt by a ruling by the U.S. attorney general in 1917, and Congress conveyed that exemption from federal income tax to state- and federally chartered credit unions because of their ownership structure and special mission. The exemption has been reaffirmed many times—in 1935, 1936, 1937, 1951, and 1998.
Credit unions’ structure as not-for-profit financial cooperatives allows them to focus solely on member value and service, and it discourages credit unions from taking the types of risks banks take in the name of profits.
The not-for-profit structure also creates significant member benefits, including lower rates on loans, lower fees on services, and higher returns on deposits. Nonmembers also benefit from credit unions’ exceptional service and market presence, which keeps competitive pressure on banks.
NEXT: Alabama and Florida
Alabama and Florida
Some credit union leaders draw parallels to 1998 and the battle to pass H.R. 1151, the Credit Union Membership Access Act.
“Coming out of H.R. 1151, we were never stronger as a lobbying force, and never more united as a movement,” says Patrick La Pine, president/CEO of the League of Southeastern Credit Unions, which serves credit unions in Alabama and Florida. “That issue united us. I see this as another watershed moment— one that gets us back to basics and helps us remember that if we want to succeed, we need to be united and work collectively.
“CUNA is using tools that didn’t exist in 1998— videos, apps, and social media—to spread the message,” La Pine says. “We have credit unions that are producing and posting videos, and pushing out text messages to their members. First and foremost, we need to educate credit union employees, board members, and members.”
Alabama Telco Credit Union in Birmingham is doing just that. “We saw the importance of educating and involving staff before doing anything else,” says Stanton Davis, vice president of marketing for the $600 million asset credit union.
The credit union’s training efforts include:
After staff is up to speed, Alabama Telco will spread the word to members. “We’ll record six-second videos on Vine of members and employees asking Congress not to tax credit unions,” Davis says. “We’ll post those to our social media outlets.” Vine is a mobile app that lets users create and post video clips (up to six seconds long) on social media.
Messaging on lobby monitors, email blasts, newsletter articles, and a website pop-up ad will further educate members. Visits with legislators and a media campaign also might be in the works.
“The time to act is now,” Davis says. “We can’t procrastinate. The more voices legislators hear from, the better.”
The Illinois Credit Union System has had its advocacy network on high alert since last fall. That’s when the Illinois Bankers Association initiated an anti-credit union attack in the media, and CUNA designated Illinois as one of three states with the greatest potential for taxation activity, says Dan Plauda, president/CEO of the Illinois Credit Union System.
He says the “Don’t Tax My Credit Union” materials now serve two purposes:
The campaign is extremely important, says Plauda. “Consumers who aren’t fully informed about the credit union difference can be swayed in either direction,” he says. “But when consumers are well-versed on this issue, they strongly support the credit union tax exemption.”
EarthMover Credit Union in Aurora, Ill., is making it clear to members that a tax on its credit union is a tax on them. Its website (earthmovercu.com) carries the “Don’t Tax My Credit Union” banner, which takes members to the video and directs them to take action.
“We also posted a message on Facebook and asked our staff to ‘like’ it and share a post,” says Libby Calderone, president/CEO of the $225 million asset credit union.
While social media is a great way to connect with members it rarely sees, the credit union still gets heavy lobby traffic, says Calderone. So front-line staff have fliers they can hand out that explain the taxation threat and how members can take action.
EarthMover also has a computer station set up in the lobby for its members to access the “Don’t Tax My Credit Union” website and contact their lawmakers.
4. Plan to Win
“Time is of the essence—credit unions can’t wait to see which direction Congress takes on this issue before we engage our members,” says Haley DaVee, vice president of governmental and public affairs with the Kansas Credit Union Association.
“As the plan for tax reform develops, it’s imperative Congress hears directly from credit unions’ 96 million members about the importance of the tax exemption and the benefits members derive from it.” “We added a new advocacy page to our website for the ‘Don’t Tax My Credit Union’ campaign, and we’re encouraging members to write their legislators,” says Vickie Hurt, co-president/CEO of $265 million asset Quest Credit Union, Topeka, Kan.
“This message is so important,” she says. “It’s about projecting our voices louder and clearer than the other organizations facing a similar threat.”
“We want to keep a consistent drumbeat of communication flowing to the North Carolina congressional delegation,” says Jeff Hardin, director of communications for the North Carolina Credit Union League. “To do this, we organized our credit unions into eight groups. Once every eight weeks, the employees of the credit unions in one of the groups contact each member of our congressional delegation to reinforce the ‘Don’t Tax My Credit Union’ message.
“As for social media, we created a publication on Paper.li [an online content aggregating and publishing tool] called #DontTax- MyCU where we summarize the links posted on Twitter under the @CUNAadvocacy and #DontTaxMyCU handles,” says Hardin. “The link to that publication is donttaxmynccu.com.
“Now, credit unions everywhere can see how others are talking about the issue with members, staff , lawmakers, and the media. It’s a form of ‘crowdsourcing’ ideas about how to engage these critical audiences,” Hardin explains.
In response to a Texas Credit Union League (TCUL) alert, Shell Federal Credit Union, Deer Park, Texas, promotes “Don’t Tax My Credit Union” on its website (shellfcu.org). The credit union also sent an e-blast to about 35,000 of its members urging them to contact their congressional representatives.
“Our most effective tool is our members’ voices,” says Angela Head, chief operations officer and legislative coordinator for the $616 million asset credit union. “The implications for our credit union—and the entire movement—are huge.”
TCUL communicated the “Don’t Tax My Credit Union” campaign to its 500 affiliated credit unions and 26 regional chapters. CU ROAR, a network of legislative advocacy teams the league created last year, has advanced the message.
Nearly 50 credit unions participate in ROAR, which stands for “ready, organized, activated, and responsive.” The program expands on the league’s legislative coordinator network by bringing in credit union staff and volunteers to bolster advocacy efforts.
“I’m glad we helped put this advocacy network together during the past few years,” says Jim Phelps, TCUL vice president of legislative affairs. “The network has enabled us to hit the ground running with ‘Don’t Tax My Credit Union.’ ”
With the launch of the tax advocacy grassroots campaign, three significant CUNA/league advocacy initiatives are taking place simultaneously:
Credit unions will recall that during the 2013 Governmental Affairs Conference, CUNA called on them to work toward a movementwide strategic vision, collaborate to remove barriers, raise awareness, and foster service excellence under the “Unite for Good” banner.
While the three initiatives are distinct, Cheney underscores the fact that they’re also strongly interrelated. “The action steps for removing barriers under ‘Unite for Good’ draw heavily from our ‘Plan to Win,’ ” he wrote in his weekly update, The Cheney Report. “The unified approach inherent in both ‘Unite for Good’ and ‘Plan to Win’ will be instrumental in generating the level of participation we need in our ‘Don’t Tax My Credit Union ’ campaign.
“All three tie together and reinforce one another,” says Cheney, “which is why your participation in all three is crucial.”
LISA J. McCUE is CUNA’s vice president of editorial communications. Contact her at 202-508-6766.
STEVE RODGERS is CUNA’s editorial director. Contact him at 608-231-4082.
The staffs of CUNA’s News Now and Credit Union Magazine contributed to this article.