For many rural Americans, the local electric or telephone cooperative is their best hope for finally obtaining modern-day connectivity. With the support of government funding, rural cooperatives have brought electricity, telephone service, and more recently broadband access to some of the most rugged and sparsely populated places in the country.
However, recent tax code changes might prevent co-ops from connecting more rural communities. Cooperatives could potentially lose their tax exempt status if they accept government grants for broadband expansion and disaster recovery — an unintended yet foreseeable consequence of the Republican “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act” passed late last year. In a press release, Senator Tina Smith called attention to the oversight, noting, “This uncertainty has caused cooperatives significant concern and frozen some of their grant applications.”
Who’s Ready for Some Tax Policy?
As nonprofit membership corporations, rural electric and telephone cooperatives are exempted from paying taxes under section 501(c)(12) of the Internal Revenue Code (IRC). To maintain this tax exempt status, cooperatives must derive at least 85 percent of their income from members (e.g., from selling electricity). This is sometimes referred to as the the member income test or the income source test.
Not all sources of non-member income are included when calculating this percentage. Revenue from utility pole rentals, for instance, is exempted. In the past, rural cooperatives also excluded federal and state grants from the member income test, based on assorted rulings from the Internal Revenue Service (one example is Rev. Rul. 93-16, 1993–1 C.B. 26, which held that a federal grant given to an airport should not be considered income for tax purposes). As long as co-ops treated the government funding as a source of capital, not income, they could accept as much grant money as they wanted without the...Read more