Monday, May 5, 2014

Nonprofit Advocacy Matters | May 5, 2014

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A “Pre-cap” of the Congressional Agenda
It’s an even-numbered, election-shortened year for Congress. Typically that means anything that can be done in the non-spending area must occur in May (before Memorial Day) and in the appropriations arena before the month-long August recess. Officeholders of all stripes have already begun calculating the competing urges of doing no harm to themselves and their party versus hurting/embarrassing the other side. Conventional wisdom holds that those urges are more intellectual than visceral prior to August, and then controlling thereafter until Election Day. With those thoughts in mind, here is a summary of what’s scheduled:
  • Spending: For the first time in years, House and Senate appropriators are officially and actually following “regular order,” that is, each of the 12 spending bills that funds federal programs is being proposed and debated in committee and is being scheduled for floor consideration prior to the end of the fiscal year on September 30. The House may pass several of the bills prior to Memorial Day; the Senate usually moves slower, but appears committed to passing as many individual measures as possible. The Labor-Education-HHS bill, which funds the largest number of programs performed in communities through the work of charitable nonprofits, tends to be the most controversial and gets put off until the last.
  • Taxes: Comprehensive tax reform is all but officially off the table for this year and the Senate and House are taking different approaches to restoring some or all of a package of expired tax provisions. Among those are the enhanced deductions for donations of food inventories and land conservation easements, and the IRA charitable rollover. The Senate is scheduled to take up a bill to restore for 2014 and extend through 2015 the package of about four dozen tax provisions. The House, instead, is planning to go through the package on a piecemeal basis, starting with six that are very popular with the business community. No plan has yet emerged to get the two chambers on the same page, suggesting that an end-of-year bill is likely.
  • Social Issues: It remains too soon to say whether several stalled issues will break free of gridlock in the coming weeks, but as time passes, their chances diminish. A Republican-led filibuster blocked action last week on a proposal to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour. The Republican majority in the House continues to insist on inclusion of one or more of its priorities, such as reforms to job-training programs, before taking up aSenate-passed bill to restore extended unemployment benefits. Neither chamber has been successful in reaching consensus on immigration reform which may or may not include a form of amnesty or pathway to legal status for individuals who entered the United States illegally.

Opposition to IRS Proposed Form 1023-EZ and Express-Lane Approvals
The IRS recently proposed a new Form 1023-EZ that would create an express-lane approval process for 501(c)(3) status. Opposition to the proposed two-page form and fast-track process has focused on how it would significantly reduce the amount of due diligence done by the IRS. One executive director forecasts chaos for fundraising and foundations "if the field is suddenly flooded with hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of newly minted c3’s.” 

The National Council of Nonprofits filed Comments in opposition as well. In summary, “We agree with the IRS that the long-established Form 1023 and application process need review and streamlining. However, we are concerned that the proposed new EZ Form and related express-lane approval process go too far and too fast, representing radical departures from proven protocols.” The National Association of State Charity Officials (NASCO) also filed Comments in opposition to the IRS proposal, noting that “State charity officials uniformly oppose a Form 1023-EZ,” and predicting “that the Form 1023-EZ will increase opportunity for fraud and heighten the burden on state regulators.”

Challenges Remain for State Revenues, Spending Priorities
The data for 2014 are mixed on how states are faring with tax revenues and on which programs they are restoring funding that they previously slashed at the depths of the recession. State revenues have experienced growth for 16 straight quarters through the third quarter of 2013, according to the Census Bureau. Governors in 42 states proposed higher spending levels for 2014 than the prior year, the National Association of State Budget Officers (NASBO) reports. Yet an analysis by The Pew Charitable Trusts found that, after adjusting for inflation, only 20 states were back to their peak levels by the second quarter of 2013. The NASBO survey shows that that the vast majority of states are increasing spending on elementary and secondary education, as well as on transportation and infrastructure. Other spending is going to “any kind of program that can be tied to economic development and job creation,” according to a NASBO official. For Florida, that means spending on tourism, while Nebraska is cutting taxes by $412 million. California, on the other hand, is considering devoting additional resources to the state’s rainy day fund. Noticeably absent from the reports is restored funding for human services and other programs that are typically provided through contracts and grants with nonprofit organizations. For a more detailed analysis, read “Lawmakers Jockey Over Budget Surpluses,” published in Stateline.

Taxes, Fees, PILOTs
  • PILOTs: Princeton University agreed to make nearly $22 million in payments in lieu of taxes to Princeton, New Jersey over a seven-year period. The new payments come on top of roughly $3 million in property tax payments the university pays on tax-exempt properties and upcoming contributions to local fire stations. In announcing the new PILOT agreement, the university president stated that the purpose was “to reaffirm both our desire to help sustain the vitality and well-being of our home community and our deep appreciation for the many aspirations and interests we share.”
  • PILOTs: The Hartford Courant has come out in strong opposition to legislation sponsored by the Connecticut House Speaker (and opposed by the Governor) that would impose property taxes on nonprofit hospitals and universities. Calling the proposal unfair and premature, aCourant editorial observed: “just because a college or hospital isn't paying property taxes doesn't mean it isn't contributing to the community. The University of Hartford, for example, offers scholarships to Hartford residents, has made land available for two magnet schools, helps incubate small businesses in the Upper Albany neighborhood and beautifully renovated an empty car dealership into an arts building, among other things.” The editors ask: “If the school was pressed for property tax revenue and had to abandon programs such as these, would Hartford be better off? Is it worth the chance?” The Connecticut House passed a scaled-down version of the Speaker's bill over the weekend; Senate passage is uncertain.
Vermont Calls for Constitutional Convention onCitizens United
On May 1, Vermont became the first state to call for a convention to amend the U.S. Constitution to reverse the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which disallowed many restrictions on money in politics. The Legislature formally resolved: “That the General Assembly, pursuant to Article V of the U.S. Constitution, hereby petitions the U.S. Congress to call a convention for the sole purpose of proposing amendments to the Constitution of the United States of America that would limit the corrupting influence of money in our electoral process, including, inter alia, by overturning the Citizens United decision, ….” Congress must convene a constitutional convention if thirty-three other states call for one.

Government-Nonprofit Contracting News
New Jersey Sees Contracting Reform Progress, Continues Streamlining Efforts
The recent progress report from New Jersey’s Red Tape Review Commission includes two items of particular interest to nonprofits. The Department of Children and Families has implemented an electronic system for bidding on contracts that reduces time and duplicative paper submissions. Additionally, the State Board of Social Work Examiners has revised its licensing requirements for greater flexibility, and the Board will now defer to accreditation standards set by national social work organizations, rather than utilizing its own. In recognition of the progress the Review Commission is making in streamlining government contracting and other problem areas, this past week Governor Christie issued an Executive Order extending its operations through 2015. The Order expressly recognizes the contributions and public input of nonprofits in helping the Review Commission analyze the impact of the regulatory environment on job creation, economic growth, and investment in New Jersey. The Review Commission was established in 2010 to address the concerns of for-profit businesses, but quickly added nonprofits as a result of the successful advocacy efforts spearheaded by the Center for Non-Profits, the state association of nonprofits in New Jersey.

Arizona Revises Nonprofit Audit Requirements
Arizona legislatively revised audit requirements for nonprofits with state contracts, increasing the audit threshold as well as adjusting the frequency with which audits conducted by a certified public accountant are necessary. Under the new law, nonprofits with more than $250,000 annually in state contracts must undergo an audit each year. Less stringent financial reporting requirements will apply to nonprofits with $250,000 or less in state contracts for the year. Under previous law, nonprofits were required to secure an audit every other year if they receive between $50,000 and $100,000 in contracts and annually if they receive more than $100,000.

Nonprofit Conservancy Helps Preserve National Park
The Yosemite Conservancy, a nonprofit based in San Francisco, has agreed to pay the lion’s share of a $36 million project to help preserve the giant Sequoias in Yosemite National Park. Past mistakes and declining federal spending on parks reportedly have caused experts to fear that the 2000-year-old trees in the Mariposa Grove at Yosemite may suffer decline. The new project will remove a road and parking lot, build an elevated walkway, and make other improvements to make the trees more resilient. In recent years, nonprofits and private funders have stepped in to underwrite operations or maintain public access to parks in Arizona, California, North Carolina, Wyoming, and elsewhere.

Judge Blocks Clothing Bin Ban
A federal judge granted Planet Aid a temporary restraining orderagainst enforcement of an Ypsilanti, Michigan ban on unattended clothing and shoe collection bins on commercial property. Asserting that the solicitation of clothing and other donations is a form of free speech, the nonprofit argued that the city’s prohibition infringed its First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The clothing bin ban reportedly was spurred by complaints about dumping near the bins and criticism about the organization's sale of the donated goods overseas. A bill pending in the Michigan Senate would take away from local governments the power to impose bans on clothing bins set up on private property.

Round One Goes to Maine Nonprofits, Round Two …
Nonprofits in Maine won a stunning legislative victory when they successfully lobbied for a bill to partially remove a cap on charitable giving. While some would be tempted to declare victory and go home, the Maine Association of Nonprofits (MANP) is rallying the advocates for the next phase.

First, the background. In 2013, at the very end of the legislative session, the Legislature, with the Governor’s concurrence, imposed a $27,500 cap on all itemized deductions, including for charitable donations. In April 2014, the Maine House and Senate undid some of the damage by increasing by $18,000 the amount of charitable donations that are deductible in tax year 2016, and removing charitable giving from the cap altogether in 2017 and beyond. The Governor didn’t sign the bill nor veto it; he let it go into law without taking any action. 

Now comes the nonprofit advocacy leadership lesson. In announcing the news about the legislative win, Brenda Peluso of MANP first gave credit where it was due: to the nonprofit leaders who spoke up for the work they perform and the people they serve. Brenda wrote: “If it were not for the calls, emails, and public testimony this community generated, we would not have been as successful as we were.”

And second? Brenda reminded her coalition colleagues that “our work is not done.” Removing charitable deductions from the cap has always been the goal, so she laid out an aggressive advocacy strategy to maintain momentum toward that aim. She encouraged Maine nonprofits to join MANP in engaging candidates throughout the campaign season, encouraging other nonprofits to talk to the candidates, and identifying sponsors and champions for new legislation next year. MANP has a special webpage to learn more.

Brenda didn’t say it, but we will: if at first you succeed in nonprofit advocacy, try, try for more.

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