Spending Decisions in Fits and Starts
Much of the media coverage of federal inaction on a number of issues has focused on the personal animus between politicians, with very little coverage of the serious consequences of leaders not reaching agreement on the looming budget crisis. If the players fail to amend the existing budget control law, $126 billion in automatic spending cuts will take effect this October when the next fiscal year starts. Further complicating things, the federal government is likely to hit the debt limit in September, which would result in a default on the nation's financial obligations. The President and congressional leaders have scheduled and cancelled meetings to avert the crisis, but animosity rather than the interests of the country
have so far prevailed.
The Senate is taking a wait-and-see approach, opting to hold off on appropriating until there is an agreement on spending levels for the next fiscal year. For its part, the House plans to start debating fiscal 2020 spending bills on the floor June 12. The House is working with tentative spending totals that will likely change once a bipartisan deal is struck or be scrapped altogether if lawmakers fail to reach a broader agreement. Failing that, Congress would have to resort to another stopgap spending bill, known as a “continuing resolution” or “CR,” to extend funding at current levels beyond the September 30 end of fiscal 2019.
New Filings in the Census Citizenship Question Case
Last week, lawyers who sued to remove the citizenship question from the 2020 census questionnaire filed with the federal district court what they described as “new evidence, concealed by [the government}” that “contradicts sworn testimony of” two senior Trump Administration officials. According to the motion for sanctions, a “longtime Republican redistricting specialist, played a significant role in orchestrating the addition of the citizenship question to the 2020 Decennial Census in order to create a structural electoral advantage for, in his own words, ‘Republicans and
Non-Hispanic Whites.’” The lawyers then filed a copy of that motion – with the new materials – with the Supreme Court so it could be aware.
The federal district court judge, the first of three federal judges who previously ordered that the question be removed from the 2020 questionnaire and whose earlier order is now being reviewed by the Supreme Court, scheduled a hearing on the matter for this Wednesday. If he finds that the new material is, in fact, real, then the “damning new evidence,” as it was described by the Washington Post, could cause the U.S. Supreme Court to delay or alter its decision. A determination of whether the question will be included is needed by the end of June because the Commerce Department must
start printing the millions of questionnaires.
- 2020 Census Funding: The House Appropriations Committee approved $8.4 billion for funding the 2020 Census as part of a $74 billion spending package last month, and the full House is expected to consider it in the coming weeks. The proposed census funding, $2.4 billion more than the President requested, is to be used to conduct the decennial count of everyone in the country and contemplates a partnership and communications campaign to “help maximize the number of persons filling out their census forms” via promotion, outreach, and marketing activities. The bill includes
language that prevents funding from being used for a citizenship question on the 2020 census questionnaire.
- CHARITY Act Reintroduced: A bipartisan group of senior Senators has reintroduced the Charities Helping Americans Regularly Throughout the Year (CHARITY) Act (S. 1475). The bill would make four changes affecting nonprofits: (1) raise the current volunteer mileage rate, fixed at 14 cents/mile, to the rate for medical and moving expenses, which is regularly adjusted by Treasury and currently set at 20 cents/mile; (2) require electronic filing of most Form 990s; (3)
expand the IRA charitable rollover to allow for distributions to donor advised funds (DAFs); and (4) simplify the private foundation excise tax from the current two-tiered structure to a flat rate of one percent. The bill sponsors are Senators Thune (R-SD) and Casey (D-PA), along with Roberts (R-KS) and Wyden (D-OR).
- Targeted Volunteer Mileage Bill Introduced: Senators Cornyn (R-TX) and King (I-ME) and Representatives Morelle (D-NY) and Wright (R-TX) have introduced separate bipartisan legislation to raise the volunteer mileage rate for some volunteers to the standard business mileage rate currently set at 58 cents/mile. The Delivering Elderly Lunches and Increasing Volunteer Engagement and Reimbursements (DELIVER) Act (1603 / H.R. 2928) would enable delivery drivers of nonprofit
food services to deduct the higher rate as a charitable donation. Expressing support for the legislation, Ellie Hollander, President and CEO of Meals on Wheels America, said: “With volunteers as the foundation of Meals on Wheels and other community-based programs nationwide, coupled with the rapidly growing need and demand for nutrition services due to the escalating senior population, we must do all we can to recruit, retain and support these individuals.”
Nonprofits and Engaging New Voters
Nonprofits are at the heart of communities and therefore provide opportunities to reach populations that no other groups are able to reach. When nonprofits do engage, voter registration and voting go way up, according to a new report by Nonprofit VOTE, Engaging New
Voters: If Nonprofits Don’t, Who Will? The report analyzes recent data of nonprofits that have participated in get out the vote efforts and identifies the power nonprofits have to get people who have never before registered to vote to civically engage. The key takeaways from the report can be boiled down to these sentences: “Voters contacted by nonprofits are TWICE as likely to be nonwhite, TWICE as likely to be under 25 and TWICE as likely to have less than $30,000 in household income. These voters were also MORE likely to vote – 11 percentage points more likely.” Brian Miller, Executive
Director of Nonprofit VOTE, explained why this matters to nonprofit organizations: “When it comes to voter turnout, too many Americans assume it’s the job of political parties and candidates to get people to the polls. But the job of parties and candidates is to win elections, not to promote equity in voting. … It’s up to nonprofits to promote equity in our democratic institutions by ensuring the communities we serve are participating.”
On June 4, 1919, the Senate approved legislation calling for a constitutional amendment granting women the right to vote. The House had overwhelmingly passed the bill two weeks earlier. Within a few days, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan ratified the amendment and on August 18, 1920, Tennessee became the last state to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment as part of the U.S. Constitution. The Amendment declares, "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex."
State Legislative Roundup
Thirty-four state legislatures have adjourned for the year, and their recent outputs show that nonprofits were on their minds:
- Charitable Giving Incentives: With the Governor’s signature last week, Arizona taxpayers will now be able to claim a nonitemizer deduction for donations to charitable nonprofits. Specifically, donors who take the standard deduction on their state tax returns will still be able to deduct 25 percent of their donations from their state taxes. Kristen Merrifield, Chief Executive Officer of the Alliance of Arizona Nonprofits, said that passage would help to “partially offset the projected annual loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in
contributions to the state’s nonprofits from recent Federal tax-law changes that doubled the standard deduction and caused many taxpayers not to itemize.” Arizona now joins Colorado and Minnesota in providing a charitable giving tax incentive to state taxpayers who take the standard deduction.
- Removing Taxes on Tax Exempts: Legislatures in Hawai`i and Illinois have passed and sent to their Governors bills to prevent automatic application of state taxes to the new federal tax on nonprofit transportation benefits. The bills passed with overwhelming support and are expected to be signed into law. Going even
further, the Governor of Minnesota recently signed a major tax bill that, among other things, decouples state unrelated business income taxes on both nonprofit transportation benefits and on each separate “trade or business.”
- 2020 Census: Fourteen states have appropriated funds to support a full, accurate, and complete 2020 Census count according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Colorado recently established a census outreach program to provide grants to government agencies and departments, school districts, and nonprofits for outreach, promotion, and education to focus on hard-to-count communities. Last week, the Governor of Washington State signed a census funding bill that appropriates $15 million for communications, nonprofit outreach, preparation of documents in multiple languages, and technical assistance.
- Employment Policy: With no legislative action at the federal level, states are adopting their own labor standards that apply in nonprofit and other workplaces. Connecticut is raising its minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2023. Starting in 2020, Colorado will allow local governments to set their own minimum wage hourly rates, reversing a decades-old ban. Colorado also has a new law allowing individuals claiming that gender is a basis in wage discrimination to skip the administrative stage and go straight to court. Similarly, Alabama may soon become the 49th state to enact an equal pay statute that prohibits employers from paying workers differently based on gender or race. Finally, starting in 2021, Maine employers with 11 or more employees will be required to provide paid
family and medical leave for up to 40 hours per year for employees.
Capital Cities Looking to Nonprofits to Fill Budget Gaps
Even during good economic times state capitals can have trouble managing their finances and a recurring tactic is blame nonprofits and demand payment out of charitable resources. The City Council for Columbia, South Carolina, reportedly is considering a number of measures to overcome a potential multimillion-dollar shortfall in next year’s budget, including imposing fees on nonprofits. The state constitution prohibits imposing property taxes on nonprofits, so local lawmakers are considering changing the city’s business license ordinance to remove exemptions for nonprofits. In
Hartford, Connecticut, a councilmember is promoting a resolution that urges state lawmakers to craft a bill that would require private universities, hospitals, and other major nonprofit organizations in the capital city to pay property tax on 20 percent of their assessed value. As is often the case, the elected officials in these cities complain that much of the city’s property is owned by tax-exempt entities, but without disclosing that tax-exempt properties include those
owned by the federal, state, and local governments.
Cities Recognize Importance of Equity in Cabinet, Policy
The new Mayor of Chicago has hired a Chief Equity Officer, joining mayors and other leaders in Buffalo, Nashville, Philadelphia, and San Antonio in their dedication to close racial and economic gaps in their respective cities. Chicago’s Chief Equity Officer will be the first equity and diversity officer in the nation who holds a cabinet-level position and will address racial and class disparities in employment, income, housing, and economic development. Each of the city equity and diversity officers
across the country is tasked with either (1) increasing diversity among staff who can create and push policy changes through a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable lens, or (2) examining systemic problems and providing policy solutions. "Local government leaders really have to begin to be comfortable with the topic of race because government has historically been the creator of institutional racial barriers," says Carla Kimbrough, author of a 2017 report on chief equity officers.
Effective Advocacy is the Commonwealth Way
Nonprofits in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts have a well-earned reputation for effective nonprofit advocacy. One proven technique is coordinated communications to influence public policy.
One day last month, members of Caring Force went to a legislative hearing to use their voices and stories to let the Legislature know just how vital fair pay and the creation of a student loan repayment program are to the human service sector. Caring Force is a grassroots
movement of human sector nonprofit employees, executives, clients, and supporters led for the past seven years by the Providers’ Council.
At a joint committee of the Legislature, human services workers told their personal experiences with how student loan debt had forced many of them to put their own lives on hold. The speakers testified that they accrued student loan debt on the path to do the work they love, caring for others. Committee members responded favorably to their calls for legislation to relieve student loan debt.
On the second issue of the hearing, lawmakers themselves spoke of the need for guaranteeing fair pay for comparable work bill that would eliminate the wage disparity between community-based human services workers and state employees doing similar jobs. Providers’ Council President and CEO Michael Weekes and other executives shared statistical data about the wage disparity in the sector and the negative impact they have seen firsthand.
The combined messaging from frontline human service workers, their employers, and informed legislators brought needed attention to policy priorities and promoted passage of several bills.
Read more examples of Advocacy in Action,
a regular feature of Nonprofit Advocacy Matters.