Few people are eager to pick fights with the IRS. Michael Sklar, now well into his second voluntary tax lawsuit, is definitely an exception.
Sklar is an Orthodox father with several children in Jewish day school. His courtroom quest: to establish religious school costs as tax deductions.
It all comes down to the Church of Scientology. The Scientologists struck a deal with the IRS that has allowed them to count the cost of their spiritual "auditing sessions" as tax deductions since 1993. The Tax Code OKs this practice for any religious expense paid in exchange for intangible spiritual benefits (for example, it also works for High Holiday seats, church pew rents, tithes, etc.).
Sklar goes further and claims that Jewish day school is no different from the Scientologists' spiritual auditing sessions, and should also be tax-deductible.
"The idea is that everybody should have the same benefit," said Jeffrey Zuckerman, Sklar's attorney.
"You get 25, 30 people, you put them in a classroom and you have a guy get up and instruct them in the tenets of the Church of Scientology," Zuckerman said. "That strikes me, in a jurisprudential sense, as indistinguishable from a teacher instructing 25 kids in Torah."
But even if one does equate the two activities, there are still questions about the dangers of pushing government even deeper into religious life simply to establish equity with the Scientologists.
"The comfort level that the Jewish community has in this society in good measure stems from the separation of church and state," said Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, executive director of the American Jewish Committee in Los Angeles. "It's certainly clear to me that the Sklars are looking for a loophole," said Greenebaum.
Interestingly, in 2002, Sklar voiced similar fears in this publication. "As a Jew, I was terrified by what [was] going on," he said about the Scientologists' deal. "The current Tax Code amounts to state-sponsored religion, and Jews never fare well under those circumstances."
But today he seems to have taken parity with the Scientologists as his main concern instead.
"[Even] if we went back to nobody being able to take [the deduction], that would not accomplish anything because then the government would have gotten away with discrimination for 10 years," Sklar said last week.
Mayoral Election: 102 Days and Counting
Bob Hertzberg's campaign is rapidly emerging as the assault troop of the Los Angeles mayoral race.
The most recent example: An online petition demanding that the mayor participate in a KNBC televised debate at the Museum of Tolerance on Dec. 2.
Hertzberg writes on his Web site: "Jimmy Hahn is continuing to avoid debating me and my fellow challengers. I don't know about you, but I am deeply offended by the fact that he is continuing to hide behind press releases."
"The fact that the mayor is running for re-election, and has raised a ton of money to run TV commercials, but is refusing to stand up and defend his record, we believe is an insult to the voters," said Matt Szabo, spokesperson for Hertzberg.
Hertzberg's petition had been electronically signed by 456 people as of Nov. 18.
"Apparently the mayor decided that defending his record would be more damaging than refusing to show," Szabo said.
The mayor said he simply has a scheduling conflict.
"We actually asked them if they'd be willing to do the debate on another night, but obviously they were not willing," said Julie Wong, spokesperson for the Hahn campaign.
The debate was originally scheduled for October, but organizer Scott Regberg said it was postponed to avoid distraction with the presidential campaign -- and because the mayor asked for another date then, as well.
The mayor has committed to attending another debate later in the month. Expectedly, the Hertzberg campaign is challenging Hahn on choosing to attend the debate three days before Christmas.
"Mayor Hahn will be at the Dec. 21 debate which will be held at the League of Conservation Voters," Wong said.
She added that this won't be the last time for a meeting between the candidates by any means.
"I think we'll have plenty of opportunities for the mayor and others in the race to talk about their vision for L.A," she said.
Hotel Union Asks Guests to 'Check Out'
The union representing hotel workers from nine major companies in Los Angeles asked the public to boycott their employers on Nov. 11.
UNITE HERE (formerly the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union), Local 11 has been engaged in a battle with the Millennium Biltmore, Westin Bonaventure, Hyatt Regency, Wilshire Grand, Regent Beverly Wilshire, Century Plaza Hotel & Spa, St. Regis, Hyatt West Hollywood and Sheraton Universal since last spring.
One of the central disputes between the union and management is the controversial two-year contract. The union wants to renegotiate in 2006, when many other hotel unions nationwide will also be in contract negotiations.
Joining together in 2006 would put them in a much stronger position to bargain for benefits with the multinational hotel chains, rather than negotiating city by city.
The hotels oppose a two-year deal, saying the dispute is local and nationwide union contracts should have nothing to do with it.
In the meantime, with no contract between the L.A. workers and hotels in force, management has suspended the free health care workers had been receiving and began charging a fee.
The long-running dispute is beginning to attract political attention.
City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles) and state Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles) attended the Nov. 11 boycott announcement.
California Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) has publicly called for a quick resolution, saying the clash could hurt the city's economy.
Economy Project Crunches L.A. Numbers
Several weeks ago, a variety of newspapers published numbers from a recent report on the health of the Los Angeles economy. The report, called the LA Economy Project, was put together by the Milken Institute and the Economic Roundtable.
Their numbers showed that L.A. workers are at risk of being undereducated for the types of jobs that will be created here in the near future.
Problem is, the study wasn't finished.
"It's something that wasn't supposed to happen for a while," said Michael Klowden, executive director of the Milken Institute. "Part of the report is done. We're finalizing the rest of it, but it was essentially incomplete information."The partial information that was released indicated a huge gap between income levels for native English speakers compared to non-native English speaking immigrants. It showed that the majority of the working poor in the city are clustered around just a few low-paying industries like restaurants, construction and housekeeping.
Klowden said that the sections of the report on how to actually address this problem in terms of public policy are still unfinished. He added that matching the workforce numbers with business data hasn't been done yet, either.
"The mayor's office has really been interested in what our findings are," said Klowden. Joy Chen, a former deputy mayor under Hahn, played a prominent role in the project. Klowden said that Hahn has publicly announced his plans to incorporate the LA Economy Project's findings into his strategy for the city, and would like to have it "coordinated from their end."
It's unclear how exactly the statistics-laden numbers that were prematurely released reflected on Hahn when they made the rounds in the major newspapers. It's also unclear whether the final report will be more favorable to Hahn or not.
But one thing is guaranteed: They will definitely be released in time for the mayoral election.