July 1, 2016

Intermittent clouds

Ohio House budget offers Masons property-tax relief

COLUMBUS — Ohio House Speaker William Batchelder is pushing an addition to the state budget that exempts organizations like the Masons, of which he is a member, from property taxes.

Legislative analysts estimate the tax break for charitable fraternal organizations at least a century old would cost school districts and local governments at least $4.8 million.

The provision includes groups including the Masons, Odd Fellows and Knights of Columbus. Veterans’ groups don’t appear to be covered.

The House Finance Committee was making final changes to the two-year, $61.4 billion spending blueprint Tuesday. The full House could vote Thursday.

Changes the House made to Gov. John Kasich’s original budget proposal give schools half the innovation money the governor sought, scrap his plans to expand Medicaid and send Planned Parenthood to the back of the line for public family planning dollars.

The House bill contains a 7 percent permanent income-tax reduction, while excluding the governor’s proposed small-business tax cut and a tax hike Kasich has strongly pushed on extraction of oil and natural gas.

The website of the Masons’ Grand Lodge of Ohio attributes the fraternal organization tax amendment to House Speaker William Batchelder, a Medina Republican. They identify “Brother Batchelder” as an active member and say the tax break would allow more money to be spent on charity statewide.

A message seeking comment was left with Batchelder’s spokesman.

“HB 59 (the state budget bill) is our greatest chance to receive this well-deserved property tax (relief) and enable these fraternal orders to continue their charitable and social work,” the posting said. “To support Brother Batchelder’s efforts to enable our continued charitable and fraternal existence in Ohio communities, please send him as well as your state Representative and Senator a letter to that effect.”

The web posting said state Sen. Jim Hughes, also a Mason, offered a similar tax break proposal several years ago as a state representative. The bill was approved by the House but died in the Senate.

A 2009 article in the Masons’ Beacon newsletter says Batchelder’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all Masons. His father, William G. Batchelder Jr., was a 65-year member of Medina Lodge (hash)58, the article said.

Bob Funk, secretary-treasurer of the Ohio arm of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said his and other veterans’ groups are organized under a section of the federal tax code not mentioned in the budget amendment.

He said those groups would also welcome qualifying for property tax relief.

“I can tell you that the veterans’ and fraternal organizations, especially the veterans’ organizations, have been trying to get relief from the property tax for a long time,” Funk said. “I can guarantee you it’s a large percentage of their budgets, especially some of the larger posts. Some of the taxes are quite exorbitant.”

On its website, the Masons’ Grand Lodge says Ohio Freemasons contribute $15 million a year in charity annually and pay $3 million in taxes — at a time when the organizations are threatened.

“As lodges are forced to sell their buildings, local communities lose one of their limited charitable resources,” the group said. “History has shown that once these assets are lost to their respective communities, there is little chance of their, or their charitable efforts, returning to these communities in the future.”

Most attention Tuesday was focused elsewhere.

Ahead of an afternoon committee hearing, dozens of demonstrators lined up along the sidewalk outside the Statehouse to encourage legislators to include the Medicaid expansion in the budget. They quietly held signs highlighting the number of mentally ill, drug addicted and others who could be helped by the extension of the program.

House Democrats planned to offer amendments to try to extend health coverage to more low-income residents, after House Republicans scrapped the governor’s plan to expand the Medicaid program under the federal health care law.

One amendment would restore Kasich’s plan. Another would provide a pathway for the state to seek federal approval for a demonstration project that would give the state flexibility to expand Medicaid-like coverage to everyone who would be eligible for the expansion.

And Democratic state Rep. John Carney, of Columbus, said he planned to offer an amendment clarifying the duties of Ohio’s state auditor to audit JobsOhio, a nonprofit job-creation entity created by the Legislature.