Congress: Gerlach last-ditch effort to pass conservation tax break falls short

WASHINGTON >> Despite winning a majority of votes in the House of Representatives, the last-ditch effort by U.S. Rep. Jim Gerlach to make permanent a federal tax break for donating land for conservation fell just 13 votes shy of passage Thursday.

Gerlach, a Republican whose term representing the 6th District ends on New Year’s Eve, has worked for years to make permanent a temporary federal tax break for conservation easements and other land preservation efforts

He said he was disappointed with the close call.

The effort was rolled into a bill with two other tax breaks — one for making donations to food banks and another for taking money out of an IRA for charitable purposes.

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The bill was called the “Supporting America’s Charities Act.”

Because the bill was being considered as part of a fast-track procedure in the House, it required a two-thirds majority, Gerlach explained.

As a result it needed 288 votes, but received only 275.

“It’s a shame because it is a bill which has bi-partisan support, and it had a lot of support in the Senate,” Gerlach said.

The tax break, which has strong support from local land preservation organizations like the Natural Lands Trust and the French and Pickering Creek Conservation Trust, has been extended for another year “but that only covers 2014,” said Gerlach.

“That’s kind of pointless because there are not a lot of families making major land conservation decisions in the last 21 days of the year,” Gerlach said.

Dulcie Flaharty, with the Natural Lands Trust, agrees.

“These are not decisions that are made at the last minute,” Flaharty said. “These are family decisions which take months or years to make.”

“For people who are very wealthy, the tax element may be less of a factor, but for people considering something that may be their biggest asset, knowing whether or not that tax incentive will be there may be make-or-break for them,” she said.

Not knowing if the federal tax break for land conservation will be in place from one year to the next — and only finding out it will be in place at the last minute — does little to encourage people from making those contributions, Flaharty said.

“When that tax break was in place for several years, we preserved over 500 acres in Montgomery County and the Natural Lands Trust preserved even more,” she said.

She knows of at least one pending donation by a professional who was at the peak of the earning period of his life and wanted to protect some land but take the tax break over several years “and he finally just gave up,” Flaharty said.

It’s not the only case, she said.

“People get disappointed and either run out of time or patience,” Flaharty said.

“We’re supremely disappointed,” she said of the bill’s failure to win passage. “We’re the baby that got thrown out with the bathwater.”

Nevertheless, she expressed the conservation community’s appreciation for what she called Gerlach’s “steadfast efforts.”

“Being our champion brought him no PAC funding and few, if any, major donors. He took the lead because he knew in his heart that strategic conservation benefitted the citizens and communities he was elected to represent,” she said.

“Jim’s work over many years has been a courageous and appreciated effort.”

Gerlach said he would have appreciated a little more effort from the other side of the aisle.

“The D’s missed an opportunity here, I think, because all the Republicans voted for it,” Gerlach said.

Gerlach said he believes some Democratic votes may have been lost because President Obama issued a veto message, saying he would veto the bill because it does not contain “offsets,” or alternative ways to generate the revenue that would be lost if the tax cut were to remain permanent.

But those kinds of offsets are really only possible through the kind of comprehensive tax reform Gerlach has sought for years and which Obama has indicated he may have some interest in supporting.

“The last major reform was in 1986 and it will take five or six years to implement, but we’ve already done some work and Paul Ryan will be the head of the Ways and Means Committee in the House, and Orris Hatch will oversee that committee in the Senate,” Gerlach said.

“So in terms of process, next year is a non-election year, perhaps they’ll finally get it done,” he said.

“We are a patient and tenacious group of people,” Flaharty said of those involved in land conservation, “and we are determined to make sure this tool to support conservation is available on a permanent basis.”