Transparency-pushing nonprofit discloses donors

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Nonprofits that engage in politics, lobbying and issue advocacy generally don’t have to disclose their donors, and many don’t.

Common Cause pushed ten bills during the session, including legislation to require more disclosure of who is paying for campaign ads, beefed up lobbyist disclosure, and create a state ethics commission. The results were mixed. (cc info)

Pictures of Money / Creative Commons

Common Cause pushed ten bills during the session, including legislation to require more disclosure of who is paying for campaign ads, beefed up lobbyist disclosure, and create a state ethics commission. The results were mixed. (photo cc info)

On the other hand, there’s Common Cause New Mexico, which spent more money lobbying during the New Mexico Legislature’s regular session earlier this year than any other group.

The organization released to NMPolitics.net two lists: one of donors from New Mexico who gave $250 or more to Common Cause in approximately the last 12 months, and a list of donors from outside New Mexico who gave specifically to fund Common Cause’s operations in this state.

The latter includes the foundation that paid for its lobbying.

Common Cause spent $86,462 on advertising and phone calls to lobby for several bills during that 60-day session, New Mexico In Depth reported. The group paid for its lobbying with part of a $162,000 grant from the Voqal Fund, said Common Cause New Mexico Executive Director Viki Harrison.

Voqal, according its website, “works to advance social equity by supporting nonprofit organizations and individuals that use technology and media to build an educated, empowered and engaged public.”

Common Cause pushed 10 bills during the session, including legislation to require more disclosure of who is paying for campaign ads, beef up lobbyist disclosure, and create a state ethics commission. The results were mixed.

While lobbying often involves wining and dining lawmakers and showering them with gifts, Common Cause instead spent its money making nearly 20,000 phone calls to voters and advertising to engage citizens in the process, Harrison said. And Common Cause plans to keep trying, she said.

‘Important to have full transparency’

Like many nonprofits that engage in advocacy, Common Cause has two organizations — what the IRS labels a 501(c)(3) and a 501(c)(4). The first can’t explicitly support or oppose political candidates and can’t engage in some legislative activities. Donations to a (c)(3) are tax-exempt. A (c)(4) generally can engage in politics and lobbying for legislation. Its funders cannot deduct their donations.

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The IRS doesn’t require most nonprofits to disclose their donors publicly even if they engage in politics, lobbying or issue advocacy. But Common Cause’s national policy requires that it release information about donors of $250 or more when requested, which is how NMPolitics.net obtained the list of New Mexico donors.

Harrison said Common Cause believes “it is very important to have full transparency in any efforts to influence policy.” She said she hopes additional organizations will voluntarily disclose their funding when they’re pushing to make the process more transparent, “just like we hope elected officials, parties, lobbyists and PACs go above and beyond what is simply the law when they disclose information.”

Most New Mexicans want more transparency, Harrison said. A poll done in January by Research and Polling, Inc. for Common Cause found widespread support for requiring public disclosure of all large political contributions from individuals, corporations, PACs, nonprofits and unions; for requiring independent political groups to disclose their funding and spending; and for requiring lobbyists to disclose the bills and issues they’re working on.

‘Until we have the same set of rules…’

In this year’s regular session, Common Cause backed a bill that would require public disclosure of donors to third-party groups that spend money for — or, perhaps more often, against — political candidates. Currently federal law allows people to give unlimited donations to such groups for so-called “independent expenditures.”

The U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling opened the door for unlimited contributions, but it also allowed states to require disclosure. In New Mexico, those donations, no matter how large, can currently remain secret.

Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, and Rep. James E. Smith, R-Sandia Park, sponsored the legislation to require disclosure. It died in the House and wasn’t considered in the Senate.

Wirth has been trying to pass such a law for years.

“The system works when everyone has the same set of rules,” Wirth said. Any group can voluntarily disclose what it wants, “and some independent expenditure entities are disclosing donors even though they do not have to,” he added.

“Until everyone has the same set of rules, however, we will not address the problem,” Wirth said.

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