Thursday, September 26, 2013

Nonprofit Advocacy Matters | September 23, 2013

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National Voter Registration Day is September 24th
Join hundreds of organizations across the country in promoting democracy on the second annual National Voter Registration Day. Here are two easy things you can do:
  • Use September 24th to ensure that all eligible voters in your office are registered. Put forms in shared spaces, send an email to staff and board members, and get creative when celebrating National Voter Registration Day. 
  • Promote Nonprofit Voter Registration Day within your network and encourage your affiliates and partners to celebrate. Dedicate one (or more) email, social media post, or other communication to spreading the word about voter registration and NVRD. 
Visit the Nonprofit Voter Registration Day website. Download graphics, view communications samples, and more. 

Congressional Agendas Clash as Government Shutdowns Loom
Facing opportunities to avoid or cause a federal government shutdown twice in the coming weeks, lawmakers appear more committed to long-term political positioning and less focused on immediate priorities. By early next week, Congress and the President must reach agreement on legislation to fund (at least temporarily) the federal government into the new fiscal year or allow the government to shut down due to a lack of spending authority. On Friday, the Republican-controlled House passed a measure, known as a continuing resolution or “CR,” that would maintain spending levels for ten weeks and added the party’s highest priority – defunding the Affordable Care Act or “Obamacare.” The Democratic-controlled Senate is expected to strip off the health care provision and send the “clean” CR back to the House, likely only days (or hours) before the October 1 deadline. It is uncertain whether the House will accept the Senate version of the CR or send back to the Senate another alternative bill in time to prevent a shutdown of the government.

Approximately two weeks later, the Treasury Department will have exhausted its legal authority to borrow money and the federal government will default on its obligations – unless Congress passes and the President signs a law lifting the limit on borrowing. The House debt-ceiling bill reportedly will extend borrowing authority and delay the 2010 health care law for a year, provide an outline and impose a timeline for enactment of a comprehensive tax reform law, and include cuts to mandatory spending programs, all of which are top Republican priorities. The President and Senate Democrats are once again rejecting each of the proposed debt-limit “add ons” and the President is insisting that he will not negotiate over terms for extending the borrowing limit to pay for previously authorized spending.

Sequestration Spotlight
Special Education
The new school year brings into focus the effects ofarbitrary spending cuts to special education. The federal budget gimmick known as “sequestration” is reducing funding by $579 million for programs serving children under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), according to the U.S. Dept. of Education. IDEA is a federal program designed to meet the learning needs of special education children to prepare them for further education, employment, and independence. Education advocates say the cuts could mean fewer social workers and school psychologist, fewer speech, occupational, and physical therapists. With government funding cut for special education, it is likely that some of the burden will shift to nonprofits to fulfill those needs. See 50-state chart of projected cuts to special education.

Additional Federal Stories

Michigan Bill Sentences Public Assistance Recipients to Community Service
Legislation requiring people receiving food stamps or other welfare benefits to perform unpaid community service in order to get public assistance checkspassed the Michigan Senate last week. While the bill sponsor feels there is “absolutely nothing wrong with requiring folks to have a little skin in the game,” the stigmatization is clear since typically “community service” is meted out as a punishment for criminal behavior. The bill does not define “community service,” making it unclear whether the mandated hours would be for “volunteer” time spent working in the Governor’s Office, legislators’ offices, and throughout state and local governments, or whether the bill seeks to impose unfunded mandates on charitable nonprofits to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of people suddenly showing up on their doorsteps seeking unscheduled and unsolicited service opportunities. Name-brand nonprofits and foundations in particular could be overwhelmed by sheer volumes of people if such a bill were passed into law. The National Council of Nonprofits supports programs that promote volunteering activities that mutually benefit individuals and the people served through nonprofits. However, the Council of Nonprofits’ Public Policy Agenda expressly opposes proposals to condition receipt of government-provided benefits on requirements that individuals volunteer at nonprofit organizations. Such a policy, sometimes called “mandatory volunteerism,” unfairly imposes increased costs, burdens, and liabilities on nonprofits by an influx of coerced individuals. 

Taxes, Fees, PILOTs
  • Taxes: Beginning October 1Kansas City, Missouri nonprofits will no longer be exempt from the City’s 7.5 percent convention and tourism taxes. Following the enactment of a Missouri lawin 2012 that made the changes possible, Kansas City residents voted in April to end the tax exemptions for nonprofits and other tax-exempt entities, such as schools and state agencies, but excluding the US government. 
  • Fees: City officials in Fort Lauderdale, Florida approved a law that will, for the first time ever, charge nonprofit organizations, including churches, and government agencies with revenue-producing operations an annual fire assessment fee. The City expects to reap $540,000 in new revenues from the expansion of the fire fee, $22,542 of which will come from the local Salvation Army alone. "It will have a significant impact on the needed services we provide," a Salvation Army representative warned.

“Heads Up” to Nonprofits About Keeping Their Tax Exemptions 
In an effort to protect thousands of nonprofits across the state, the Maryland Comptroller has begun notifying six thousand organizations that they are at risk of losing their tax exempt status or have already done so because they failed to file the proper IRS forms. “I want to do everything in my power to ensure that each and every Maryland nonprofit organization, and its mission, is not placed in jeopardy by this matter," said the Maryland Comptroller. In 2006, federal law mandated that the IRS begin requiring small nonprofit organizations with annual gross receipts equal to or less than $50,000 electronically file IRS Form 990-N, also called an e-Postcard. The law also requires that all nonprofits that fail to comply with the annual filing requirement after three years will suffer automatic revocation of their tax-exempt status. Donors to nonprofits that lose their tax-exempt status also lose the ability to deduct their contributions. “The services provided everyday by local nonprofit organizations are vital to the health and safety of countless Marylanders, especially during this difficult economy,” U.S. Representative Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD) said. “It’s our duty to protect these organizations as they help our friends and neighbors.” The IRS has revoked the tax-exempt status of more than 535,000 former nonprofits nationwide, including more than 11,600 in Maryland, since it started implementing the law passed by Congress. Check the IRS database to make sure your organization has not been automatically revoked and see additional resources from the National Council of Nonprofits.

States Seek to Improve Food Safety without Burdening Nonprofits 
The Indiana health department has until the end of October to make recommendations to state legislators on what changes can be made to state law or practices to reduce the incidence of food-borne illness while alsoprotecting nonprofits from burdensome food safety regulations. Under current law, churches and other charitable nonprofits are permitted to serve food only a limited number of days each year; otherwise they are considered “food establishments” and required to adhere to food safety rules. As a result of a food-safety law enacted in 2001, church potlucks and similar food-related events at nonprofits were effectively banned. Earlier this summer, Georgia legislators also clarified the meaning of “food service establishments” with a new law that exempts nonprofits and government entities from state requirements for food service permits if the event involving food lasts five days or less.    

In Praise of Government Outreach to the Nonprofit Community
The City Council in Salt Lake City, Utah has beendebating a proposal to broaden the criteria for engagement by community organizations and is going above and beyond the norm to hear what the public really thinks. The City’s current definition of community-based groups normally applies only to neighborhood-based community councils that focused on geographic interests rather than broader issues of city-wide concern. The proposed ordinance would acknowledge many more nonprofits than neighborhood-focused citizens groups, all with the goal of encouraging more citizens of Salt Lake City to be more engaged in the City’s operations through nonprofits with broader interests. 

And instead of simply posting the draft bill and debating it during a public hearing, the City Council has embraced outreach by maintaining a comprehensive webpage to solicit public opinion. A truly worth seeingbrief educational video explains the proposal and ends with the phrase “but before the Council makes a decision, they want to know what you think about the possible changes.” 

Utah Nonprofits Association logoUtah Nonprofits Association (UNA) is applauding the City Council’s efforts to include more community-based organizations in the processes of city government. In a statement, UNA thanked Council members for their “recognition of the value that these organizations add to life in our community,” and observed that “additional voices in the democratic process create greater transparency and more functional projects as well as more satisfied community members.”

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