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Bill to ax tax breaks for churches hits hurdle

Lisa Demer

JUNEAU -- A bill intended to do away with property tax breaks for church-owned houses occupied by religious school teachers, such as those owned by the Anchorage Baptist Temple, has hit a snag in its first committee.

Rep. Cathy Munoz, R-Juneau and the chair of the House Community and Regional Affairs Committee, said she's heard a lot of opposition to House Bill 305 and that some other legislators on the committee also don't like it. The measure was heard in her committee Feb. 9 and is still locked up there.

"The votes aren't there," acknowledged the prime sponsor, state Rep. Berta Gardner.

The measure would only affect few residences but because of the religion angle and the connection to the Baptist Temple and its chief pastor, the Rev. Jerry Prevo, it has generated huge public interest.

"There's been a lot of push back, much of it wrong and misinformed," Gardner said. Some opponents are framing it as an attack on religious freedom, or as somehow relating to protections for people who are gay or lesbian.

Prevo and the church's administrative pastor, the Rev. Glenn Clary, have long been Republican Party activists and now are leading opposition to the One Anchorage Initiative, the equal rights ballot measure next month.

Gardner and one of the co-sponsors, Lindsey Holmes, both Anchorage Democrats, say they'll try a new tack: letting local governments decide whether to exempt religious educator housing from local property taxes. That wouldn't outlaw the tax breaks, the way their original bill would, but wouldn't automatically grant them, either, the way current law does. Instead, municipalities would control the issue.

That's the approach the Alaska Municipal League told the committee it favors, since the lost revenue would affect local governments, not the state.

It appears the only houses that could lose a tax exemption under the measure are those owned by the Baptist Temple.

The House committee was told that the state assessor found 10 residences now getting the exemption, five owned by the Baptist Temple and five owned by Alaska Christian College. However, Alaska Christian College later told the committee its housing is for students and volunteers, not teachers.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough tax assessor, Tom Anderson, said in an interview Friday that his office had earlier investigated the bible college's request for a tax break and determined the houses had a religious purpose but he doesn't recall who lives in them. If the bill passed, his office would take another look, he said.

A legislative researcher estimated the tax break for the Baptist Temple properties was worth about $15,000 a year.

Gardner says it's a matter of fairness. Every time one group gets a property tax break, all other property owners must pay a little more, she said. And public school teachers don't get similar property tax breaks.

Gardner's office initially was flooded with comments from supporters of eliminating the exemption, more than on any other topic. Then, prompted by some churches, opponents began to come forward.

Munoz said the opposition is loud. As of Wednesday, the committee had received written comments from about 60 individuals, with opponents far outnumbering supporters. No one testified against it at last month's hearing.

"I am outraged that HB305 is before the legislature," Tim Woodall wrote in a Feb. 14 email. "It is un-American to lay such burdens on private religious organizations." He noted that parents pay to send their children to private school, and pay again in property taxes that support public schools.

But the Rev. Glenn Petersen, the long-time pastor of Central Lutheran Church in Anchorage, said church property exempted from taxes should have a church use such as a sanctuary, or be used as a parsonage for the pastor and family.

"In our tradition, the pastor is the person responsible for teaching and preaching the word and administering the sacraments," he wrote in a Feb. 1 email to Gardner. "Tax exemption for housing teachers that are much like public school teachers seems to stretch fairness beyond reason."

And someone ordained as a minister for tasks such as running the lights and sound systems during church services should not get the tax break either, he wrote. "It's a scam!"

At the Anchorage Baptist Temple, Prevo's son, Allen, is the church lighting technician and a minister ordained through the Baptist Temple. His home has been tax exempt and he had a secret agreement to buy the house and was building equity, the Daily News reported earlier this year.

City officials in Anchorage have been investigating whether there was anything improper about tax breaks to the church for Allen Prevo's house and others in which pastors were allowed to acquire equity.

Gardner is trying to address changes the Legislature made in 2006. Those changes were prompted by an Anchorage tax assessor ruling that the Baptist Temple was improperly claiming exemptions for religious school teachers, a janitor and a music director. The Legislature responded by adding religious school teachers to the covered group and changing the definition of pastor to include whomever a church ordained, commissioned or licensed.

Reach Lisa Demer at ldemer@adn.com or 907-500-7388.

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By LISA DEMER
Anchorage Daily News