Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Nonprofit Advocacy Matters | February 24, 2014

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Big News Coming on Taxes and Spending; Little Traction Expected
Within the next two weeks, the public will learn the details of two major proposals that, if enacted, would significantly alter federal tax and spending policies. Neither, however, is expected to do more than serve as discussion drafts for the 2014 elections. First up, perhaps as soon as this week, is a draft bill by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI) that is expected to reduce corporate and individual tax rates and eliminate numerous special-interest provisions. It is unclear what changes will be proposed to provisions that affect charitable nonprofits. Less than a week later, President Obama is expected to release his budget proposal for fiscal year 2015. Early reports suggest that he will move away from past austerity budgets by calling for $56 billion in new spending on domestic and defense priorities. 

While largely symbolic – neither package is expected to be enacted as written this year – the details could well appear in legislatures across the country. For example, the President’s proposal to cap itemized deductions, first raised in his 2009 budget proposal, was enacted in modified form in Hawai`i in 2011 (where it was reversed in 2013 due to the harmful consequences) and considered in several other states in 2013. Likewise, the call to convert tax deductions into tax credits – a proposal seen in several federal tax-reform packages – was seriously considered before being rejected in Minnesota last year.

Proposal to Regulate Social Welfare Nonprofits Under Fire
Partisans and nonpartisan nonprofits alike are expressing the common view that proposed regulations from the Treasury Department and the Internal Revenue Service should be withdrawn. To date, a record of nearly 70,000 comments have been filed on the proposed rules to define what should be considered “candidate-related political activity” by 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations. Many of those comments express concern about the adverse effect on partisan activities of conservative or progressive organizations. The House is expected, this week, to take up a bill to delay consideration of the proposed regulations until after the November elections. Several charitable nonprofit, such as Nonprofit VOTE, the Colorado Nonprofit Association, and the North Carolina Center for Nonprofits have filed comments challenging the draft as overly broad and likely to infringe on the legitimate advocacy and civic engagement work of 501(c)(3) organizations. The National Council of Nonprofits will be submitting comments in the coming days and all interested parties are encouraged to file public comments; the deadline is Thursday, February 27. Read recent articles in Nonprofit Advocacy Matters (January 27, 2014December 16, 2013, andDecember 2, 2013) for background information. 

First Answers Provided to OMB Guidance Questions
The December release of new Grants Guidance by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has generated enthusiastic interest by charitable nonprofits that perform work on behalf of governments, as well as hundreds of questions from non-federal entities trying to understand the details and scope of the once-in-a-generation overhaul of federal grants policies. In response, the Council on Financial Assistance Reform (COFAR), which is working with OMB to implement the Guidance, has published its first set of 24 answers to Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs), covering such topics as when the new rules go into effect and what “profit” means in the context of charitable nonprofits. Federal officials have not yet addressed a number of questions regarding the mandate that pass-through entities (typically state and local governments) pay the indirect costs of nonprofits. The initial FAQs are the first of several expected sets over the next few months. The COFAR is encouraging individuals and organizations to submit additional questions to help it identify where additional clarification is needed. The National Council of Nonprofits also asks nonprofits with governments contracts or grants to share their questions so that we can follow up and work to ensure that the promise of the new OMB Guidance is achieved through appropriate government actions and interpretations. Please give us your questions and feedback.

Taxes, Fees, PILOTs
  • Property Taxes: Legislation in Kansas seeks to remove property tax exemptions from nonprofit human service providers that receive 40 percent or more of their revenues from the sale of membership or program services that would otherwise incur a sales tax if sold by a for-profit organization. For-profit fitness centers reportedly are targeting YMCAs that sell memberships for their athletic programs in addition to providing community benefits particularly to low-income children and families. Other nonprofits, including Goodwill Industries of Kansas, are expressing concern that the legislation could adversely affect their missions as well.
  • Fees: The Honolulu City Council is considering anordinance to extend trash pickup fees and cart usage fees to nonprofits that own real property. The proposal issupported by the local newspaper
Putting “Voluntary” into Volunteerism
Reversing a trend nonprofits have been seeing in state legislatures, a bill in Washington State treats volunteering with charitable nonprofits as a positive incentive rather than a punishment. The legislation would give unemployed individuals theoption of performing volunteer services in lieu of previously mandated job-search requirements. Elsewhere, legislators have sought to impose community service requirements performed at nonprofits as a condition of receiving mandatory or previously earned public benefits. Typically such bills are promoted without regard to the potential avalanche of people who might descend on well-known “name-brand” charities and the sudden liability exposure the bills could impose on nonprofits. Bills to create the community service mandate, known as “mandatory volunteerism,” have been introduced most recently in Alabama and Michigan.

Nonprofit Compensation Flags Agenda Items
Scrutiny of allegedly high compensation levels paid by some nonprofit organizations can lend support for others to advance their agendas against charitable nonprofits. The St. Louis County Missouri Assessor recently announced that he has launched a review of tax-exempt organizations to determine whether they continue to qualify for property tax exemptions. The Assessor, an elected position, was responding to a series of articles in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch questioning the charitable care provided by two nonprofit senior living facilities that pay their CEOs in excess of $1 million each and whether they deserve to remain exempt from paying over $3 million in property taxes annually. In Oregon, a labor union is collecting signatures to put an initiative on the November ballot that would cap the salaries of nonprofit hospital executives at no more than 15 times that of the lowest-paid workers. Hospital officials assert that the ballot measure is designed to give unions leverage to organize and negotiate at the nonprofit hospitals.

Big Day Advocacy
There’s every day advocacy to which most of us aspire, and then there is Big Day Advocacy like CommonGood Vermont choreographed in the Green Mountain State earlier this month. The Vermont Nonprofit Legislative Day, conducted this year on February 6, presented a lineup of events that left no doubt that charitable nonprofits have the ear of legislators.

The day began with a welcome from the Speaker of the House, followed by a panel of luminaries providing an overview of legislative issues facing the nonprofit sector, how nonprofits can effectively communicate their impact, and advocate for their issues. 

In an interesting twist, the House of Representatives opened its session with inspirational words from a nonprofit leader (seeWorth Watching, above) and a Vermont Nonprofit Proclamation, during which the speaker estimated that half of the members of the House have served their communities through local nonprofits, whether as employees, board members, or volunteers.

The day also included not just lobbying for the nonprofit policy agenda but also testimony before a Senate Committee on the top legislative priority for the year, a bill to require results-based accountability by government. Five nonprofit leaders, includingLauren-Glenn Davitian of CommonGood Vermont, provided committee members with hands-on analyses of what better data collection and reporting will mean for government efficiency and the work of charitable nonprofits.

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