Saturday, February 11, 2006

Miller Helping Miller

Advance America usually devotes its energy at the Indiana State House pushing its fundamentalist Christian agenda. That means no abortions, no gay marriages or adoptions, prayer in school and public funding of religious schools. It came as somewhat of a surprise when Advance Indiana discovered that Eric Miller is touting a sales tax break during this year’s legislative session for the recreational vehicle (RV) industry on behalf of Advance America. Upon further investigation, it should have come as no surprise.

As Miller describes two bills moving through the legislature, HB 1073 and SB 106, to Advance America’s members, the legislation will “help protect Hoosier jobs.” He further explains the legislation to his members:

HB 1073 authored by Rep. Jackie Walorski has passed the House and SB 106 authored by Sen. Mike Young has passed the Senate. Both of these bills help restore the law as it used to be a few years back concerning the purchase of recreational vehicles in the state of Indiana by an out-of-state buyer. Since the law was changed approximately four years ago, sales of recreational vehicles to out-of-state buyers have decreased dramatically. This has had an adverse impact on recreational vehicle dealers and also hurts the entire RV industry in Indiana. Since Indiana is the RV leader in the world, any impact on the RV industry adversely affects the entire state of Indiana. Representative Walorski and Senator Young are working to help ensure that Indiana does not continue to have the loss of recreational vehicle sales to out-of-state buyers.

The tax law Miller is seeking to undo was enacted by the legislature several years ago as a revenue enhancement measure. Essentially it requires Indiana RV dealers to collect sales taxes on the sale of RVs to persons who purchase in-state but reside outside the state of Indiana at a rate at least equal to the person’s state of residence but no higher than Indiana’s 6% sales tax rate. According to a fiscal impact statement prepared by the Legislative Services Agency, the state will lose between $3.7 million and $7.2 million in annual sales tax revenues if the law as written is repealed. To be fair there are economic arguments in support of the legislation as the Elkhart Truth discussed in recent reporting on the bills.

So why is Miller and Advance America pursuing this legislation? Because their largest benefactor is a big player in the RV industry. Mahlon Miller, who is no relation to Eric Miller, is an “Amish Mennonite RV magnate” as the Star’s Matt Tully describes him. During Miller’s unsuccessful bid for Governor in 2004, Tully reported: “Mahlon Miller — described by friends, employees and relatives as deeply religious and extremely generous — has largely bankrolled conservative activist Eric Miller's campaign for the Republican gubernatorial nomination.

Mahlon Miller kicked in $570,000, or 63% of the funds Miller had in his campaign account in 1994. As Tully described it, “The brotherly financial love (between the two Millers) has helped offset a huge fund-raising advantage enjoyed by GOP rival Mitch Daniels as the May 4 primary approaches. It also shows the freedom Indiana's campaign laws allow donors — there is no limit on contributions by individuals." Miller’s campaign also toured the state in an RV donated by the RV mogul. Eric Miller defended Mahlon’s large contributions to his campaign. "What Mahlon has done is make sure we have had the resources to get our message out, and make sure the people of Indiana know who I am and what our plan is to get Indiana moving," said Eric Miller.

Mahlon Miller is a 66-year old father of 6 children from Nappanee. He owns Newmar Corp., an RV manufacturer based in Nappanee which employees more than 1,000 employees. Newmar produces about 4,400 RVs annually and has annual revenues in excess of $350 million.

What Tully did not explore in his election year report is how much Mahlon Miller is funding the Advance America organization. Because the organization is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit, any contributions Mahlon makes to Advance America are tax-deductible. It is not clear just how much Mahlon has contributed to Advance America because federal tax laws do not require non-profit organizations to divulge the identity and amounts its contributors donate. Given the large campaign contributions Mahlon made to Miller’s political campaign, it is not difficult to surmise that he may well be bankrolling the tax-exempt organization as well.

There is a major difference though between the two types of contributions. Mahlon, a multi-millionaire, could not deduct the campaign contributions he made to Miller’s campaign on his personal income tax return. He can, however, deduct the contributions he makes to Advance America because it is a tax-exempt organization. And because Advance America appears to be lobbying for a tax break to benefit his industry, he effectively is able to obtain a deduction he otherwise would not qualify for. Lobbying expenses are not deductible under the Internal Revenue Code, which bars deductions of expenses to influence legislation, political campaigns, referenda and executive decisions.

The arrangement works wonderfully for both Millers. Mahlon can bankroll a tax-exempt organization which in turn lobbies the legislature to advance his religious, social agenda and his own personal business interests and, at the same time, obtain a tax deduction for expenses he otherwise could not deduct. Eric Miller is able to use those funds to pay himself a hefty salary to run the organization, pay six-figure retainer fees to his law firm and otherwise advance his own personal and political ambitions.

It all just adds up to an even greater need for a complete and thorough investigation of Eric Miller and Advance America by the appropriate governmental authorities. Advance America is nothing more than a political action group masquerading as a legitimate, tax-exempt educational organization. It should be stripped of its tax-exempt status and appropriate punishments should be handed down to Eric Miller and others responsible for allowing it to flaunt its tax-exempt status. Is anybody listening?

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