AG Might Hamper Advocacy Work

March 11, 2013       Mark Hrywna      

Regulations proposed on nonprofit advocacy groups by the New York attorney general could hamper efforts by organizations doing legitimate advocacy on public policy, according to one watchdog group.

Praising New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman for going after “sham nonprofits” involved in electioneering, the Alliance for Justice countered with suggested changes to his proposal. AFJ is a Washington, D.C.-based association of more than 100 organizations providing information, resources and technical assistance about advocacy.

“We commend the attorney general for taking a swing at the wrongdoers,” said Abby Levine, legal director for advocacy programs at Alliance For Justice. The regulations as proposed, however, risk impeding legitimate advocacy” by groups like the Sierra Club and AARP.

“While we share the concern that a few wealthy voices can dominate an election,” Levine said a few bad apples are not representative of the more than 110,000 501(c)(4) across the country.

Schneiderman in December announced new regulations that would require nonprofits, including 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations registered with the state, to report the percentage of expenditures that go to federal, state and local electioneering. Groups that spend at least $10,000 to influence state and local elections in New York would be required to file itemized schedules of expenses and contributions, which would then be released to the public. New York City has a mayoral election this November and a statewide ballot measure on casino gambling.

Draft regulations include a broad definition of “election-related” advocacy that could discourage nonprofits from advocating for changes in law and policy, out of fear of being seen as doing something considered to be “election-related.” A requirement to disclose donations as low as $100 could scare people from giving to controversial causes. In New York, that could have affected advocates for the marriage equality law that was approved two years ago, but also potentially impeded environmental groups from getting involved in the debate over “fracking.”

Alliance For Justice detailed several suggested changes to the proposed regulations in an eight-page letter to the attorney general this week.

“We would like to see adjustments in things like the size of contributions that need to be reported, the definition of ‘election-related’ expenditures, and the threshold for total spending on a campaign that triggers the requirements,” said Levine.

Organizations already are required to report lobbying and political campaign activities on Schedule C of their federal Form 990. “Rather than having to track expenditures according to New York State’s very broad definition of ‘election-related expenditures,’ requiring the creation of a separate tracking system, organizations should be able to provide data from their Form 990.

AFJ recommended the threshold be raised from $100 to at least $500, arguing that a $500 contribution is more significant when made to an organization that spends $100,000 on political activities than one that spends $1 million or $10 million.

AFJ also has asked that an exception be made for communications between an organization and its members – as opposed to the general public – as well an exception for on disclosure of a group’s membership dues that might exceed $100.