Inside the Capitol

Thursday, March 12, 2009

3-16 Lawmakers, Nonprofits Square Off

MON, 3-16-09

SANTA FE - Wouldn't it be a hoot if the only ethics legislation passed this year were to be a bill to requiring more disclosure by nonprofit organizations?
The current New Mexico legislative leadership, especially in the Senate, shows absolutely no inclination to reveal anything more than it has to about money its members receive or how they conduct meetings.
But these same lawmakers are very anxious to know all about any new organizations that seek to educate the public about issues facing the Legislature.
I'll be the first to acknowledge that there is much to be curious about. Lawmakers are accustomed to nonprofits that are dirt poor. Operating on miniscule budgets, these organizations have sent volunteer lobbyists to Santa Fe to beg for pittances of money.
Then, last year at about this time, brochures started hitting mailboxes explaining about good government issues and citing the voting record of lawmakers representing that district. It didn't cause a great amount of alarm at the time but on primary election day, three powerful Democratic committee chairmen were defeated and a fourth almost unseated.
That caught the attention of political leaders. The three defeated lawmakers filed suit. The attorney general and secretary of state demanded the nonprofits file a list of contributors. Who was suddenly giving big bucks to nonprofit groups?
In the fall, others were targeted, including Republicans. Senate Minority Leader Lee Rawson was defeated. Something had to be done about this new power. It wasn't spending as much money as corporate or union groups. But its success rate was phenomenal.
The nonprofit leaders contended they were merely exercising their free speech rights to educate their members and the public. Legislative leaders countered that since nonprofit organizations receive a tax break, the government has a right to regulate them.
The nonprofits argued that they were complying with all laws governing them and they were only required to disclose their contributors once a year. At issue is whether the groups' activities crossed over from the educational to the electioneering realm.
This year's Legislature may provide an answer this week. But it won't be the final answer. Courts have been all over the place on these issues. One legislative sponsor explained that the current bill under consideration is experimental to determine validity of the argument that favorable tax treatment is a public subsidy.
If tax exemptions are eventually ruled to be a subsidy, permitting a degree of governmental control. The same questions will be raised about other entities receiving tax breaks. Roundhouse chatter indicates religious institutions and companies receiving bailout money could be likely targets for scrutiny on issues related to political education activities.
The controversy is likely to get dirty. Any group that can start picking off party leaders will be fought hard. Legislative leaders note that one of the nonprofit groups' big issues is legislative transparency and yet the nonprofits don't want to be transparent.
Nonprofit representatives charge legislative leaders with being the biggest problems with any kind of ethics legislation getting passed. Charges of hypocrisy fly in all directions. They both have a point but this is just big league competition in which both sides work at maximizing their advantages.
The webcasting fiasco that has dogged this entire legislative session has some deep roots in the legislator defeats of last year. Legislative leaders fear the nonprofit groups will use clips in their materials next year.
Lawmakers say any organization receiving a tax break is getting government support and is subject to government scrutiny. Nonprofits say it is even more important to scrutinize those who oversee the spending of all public money. And, they contend, they are the only ones doing it.
Well, let me put in a word for the media at this point. Our founders had in mind a free press protecting the public from the monarchies they had endured in Europe. We do a reasonably good job but, at times, come in for our share of attacks too.

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