For Former NCUA Chairman, Effort At Documentation Has Familiar Look

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The debate surrounding the credit union tax exemption and whether credit unions can document service to underserved communities looks mighty familiar to one man-former NCUA Chairman Norm D'Amours.

The former Democratic congressman from New Hampshire and former CUNA lobbyist successfully tried to require "a short statement of the general efforts [community-chartered credit unions] would make to serve and reach out to low-income members," in 1997. Three years later, he succeeded in getting the Community Action Plan passed by the board-only to see it repealed upon his departure from the board.

He noted the current NCUA board's decision to put out a survey related to this issue isn't the first time the regulator has attempted such a survey.

"I attempted to get the NCUA board to survey credit unions on their service to the underserved in 1999," D'Amours told The Credit Union Journal. "We agreed on a list of questions. The debate, instead, was about whether the survey would be mandatory or voluntary. I wanted it to be mandatory, the other two board members wanted it to be voluntary. I argued that a voluntary survey would be statistically meaningless, and as it happened, the (Office of Managment and Budget) agreed with me."

That's right, this is also not the first time that the OMB has questioned the legitimacy of an NCUA survey on serving the underserved. In the current case, OMB suggested NCUA acted improperly, under the Federal Paperwork Reduction Act, by approving the latest survey without putting the move out for public comment first, which the agency has hastily corrected (see related story, page 22).

But D'Amours said when OMB got into the act during his chairmanship, the White House agency weighed in on the survey itself, not simply how the NCUA went about doing it. "The OMB agreed that, structured as it was, as a voluntary survey, made it a complete waste of time, money and paper," D'Amours related. "Once the OMB suggested the survey would be meaningless...well, the survey never was sent out."

So, what does D'Amours think of this most recent effort by NCUA to survey credit unions on their service to the underserved and whether it will adequately meet demands for documentation?

"That is exactly the right question to ask, but I have no idea," D'Amours responded. "It all depends on the context, content and structure of the survey. Until we see that, there's just no telling."

But what is telling, D'Amours said, is the very fact that these same issues just keep coming back to life. "Isn't it strange that it is still being debated now," D'Amours asked. "It's been a lot of years since I was on the board and a lot of years since we had this very same debate, and here it is again."

While D'Amours had hoped to put this issue to rest during his tenure on the NCUA board, he hopes the current board will have better luck than he had. "The credit union movement didn't want to deal with this back then, and they don't want to deal with it now, either," he observed. "One has to hope that this time the board will do this in a meaningful manner."

D'Amours has been somewhat involved in the current debate over the tax exemption, having testified before the November House Ways and Means Committee. In his testimony, D'Amours described himself as someone "deeply committed to the traditional focus of credit unions on low-income Americans," said he did not support taxation, but wanted to see "greater transparency."

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