Keating Tosses an Air Ball on Capitol Hill
American Bankers Association President/CEO Frank Keating stirred up the credit union faithful recently with a new spin on the tired credit union tax exemption fight.
In his June 23 opinion piece published in Washington political paper The Hill, Keating argued that the proposed Players Choice Federal Credit Union, which applied for an NCUA charter, runs afoul of the Federal Credit Union Act because the credit union's proposed pro athlete field of membership does not fit into the modest means category.
That argument makes for a great sound bite, but Keating needs to read the FCUA more closely before he makes such grandiose claims of statutory violation.
In the law, the term modest means is only mentioned twice; and even then, only in the footnotes.
The first mention of the term is a history lesson: “The American credit union movement began as a cooperative effort to serve the productive and provident credit needs of individuals of modest means.”
The second mention inches a little closer to Keating's argument, but ultimately comes up short.
“Credit unions … are exempt from federal and most state taxes because they are member-owned, democratically operated, not-for-profit organizations generally managed by volunteer boards of directors and because they have the specified mission of meeting the credit and savings needs of consumers, especially persons of modest means,” it reads.
Now, I’m no lawyer, but there's a distinct difference between especially and exclusively.
Nowhere in the FCUA does it say credit unions can only serve consumers of modest means. The ability to participate isn't a right reserved only for the poor.
Keating's opening line shows his ignorance on this point.
“Would you believe that multimillionaire basketball stars Tim Duncan and LeBron James could soon be eligible for taxpayer subsidies intended for low-income Americans?” he wrote.
News flash, Frank: LeBron, Tim and the rest are probably already eligible to join a credit union as residents of their communities, and possibly even as employees of their respective organizations. They might even already be credit union members.
For me, this issue hits close to home. The two credit unions at which I’ve worked both served members who were not primarily of modest means. Many earned six-figure salaries.
It's pretty ironic a Republican like Keating would advocate denying the upper middle class such a basic right. Of course, it would work in the bankers’ favor if those above the poverty line could only open bank accounts.
I’m not sure from where Keating sourced his statement that nearly half of credit union members are upper-income. Perhaps he's arguing that the millions of enlisted men and women who belong to Navy Federal, PenFed and other military-based credit unions are overpaid. Or maybe the 2 million members of State Employees’ Credit Union are living secret lives of luxury in North Carolina. The next time I travel to Seattle, perhaps I’ll notice BECU members sporting solid gold rims on their sensible Subaru Outbacks.
Now, it's fun to pick on the bankers, especially when they press such an absurd argument. But there is also an opportunity here for credit unions to move beyond it.
The banking lobby is able to use the modest means argument in part because whenever the tax exemption is threatened, credit unions parade their tired, poor, huddled masses before Congress.
Serving the poor is a noble effort, and as cooperative financial institutions that serve all communities, credit unions should absolutely do so. They should be proud of it, and there's no reason not to use those efforts in lobbying.
However, modest means isn't the reason credit unions get that tax exemption; it's their not-for-profit, cooperative structure.
The trades do push this point on Capitol Hill. But it should have equal if not greater emphasis than the modest-means pitch.
Credit unions aren't for poor Americans. They’re for all Americans.
Additionally, credit unions should be more aggressive in selling cooperative structure as the primary benefit of membership. Some credit unions do this very well, but most avoid it altogether.
That's foolish, not only in terms of political sustainability, but in attracting Gen Y, who we know value ethics as much as price.
Heather Anderson is executive editor of CU Times. She can be reached at email@example.com.