Originally posted at Beyond Chron.
By Randy Shaw.

A San Francisco Board of Supervisors committee hears legislation today that would define nonprofit staff as “lobbyists.” The measure subjects nonprofits to the disclosure, filing and training requirements of hired guns for corporate interests like Big Soda or Big Oil. Supervisor David Chiu is the sponsor, but says he opposes its provisions applying to nonprofits. So how did this anti-nonprofit measure reach the Board?

It’s a mystery. Progressive San Francisco is considering legislation that attacks nonprofits, even those serving the poor. Yet even the bill’s sponsor is denying responsibility for its provisions.

David Chiu has been adamant in conversations with me and others that he does not think the legislation should cover most nonprofits. Yet that’s precisely what his legislation still does.

Under the current language of Chiu’s bill, a “lobbyist” is no longer someone paid “$3000 or more within three consecutive months for lobbyist services.” Instead, Chiu expands “lobbyist” to include every nonprofit employee who “makes five or more contacts in a calendar month” with a government official.

This means that nonprofit employees pushing Supervisors to provide cost of doing business increases are deemed “lobbyists” if they contact five supervisors – a logical plan given the need for eight votes to pass a budget – and they are subject to extensive reporting requirements and ongoing lobbyist training sessions imposed by the measure.

What a great strategy for deterring nonprofit staff from urging legislators to provide more resources for the poor and disenfranchised. It’s a strategy similar to a plan to silence nonprofits pushed by the notorious Istook Amendment during the 1995 Gingrich-controlled House of Representatives.

That amendment, which took various forms, sought to prevent nonprofits receiving federal funds from advocacy even with non-federal dollars. As described in Berry and Arons’ book, A Voice for Nonprofits, “Istook may have intended to stop Jesse Jackson and national environmental groups from receiving government grants, but their net would have caught food banks, YMCA’s and centers for retarded citizens too.”

The same is true for the measure before the Board today. Many nonprofits pushing for worker raises are not advocacy oriented, but the new lobbying rules would also catch them in their net.

A Solution in Search of a Problem

This legislation emerged last summer from concerns raised by City Attorney Dennis Herrera and Supervisor Chiu about alleged widespread circumvention of the city’s lobbying restrictions. Although nonprofits were not identified among these offenders, the initial draft of legislation targeted them. When they raised objections to Chiu, he assured them that their concerns would be addressed prior to a Board hearing on the legislation.

It then came as a great surprise to nonprofit leaders when the current version of the legislation emerged from the City Attorney’s office even worse than before. Chiu heard from many nonprofits this week alarmed at the current language. He continued to insist that treating nonprofit workers as paid corporate lobbyists was not his goal, yet his legislation does just that.

Nonprofits still cannot figure out what problem this legislation is trying to solve. Herrera recently sued former Supervisor Michael Yaki for violating lobbying rules, so the current law is clearly enforceable (Yaki soon settled). The public knows the difference between a corporate interest hiring an outside firm to “lobby” on its behalf and a nonprofit group pushing for tougher eviction protections for tenants or salary hikes for their workers.

Lobbying regulations enable the public to know that a law or public relations firm is representing a particular private interest when meeting with a public official. But when a nonprofit ED or their staff meets with a legislator, there is a transparency as to who they are representing. This is particularly true when nonprofits are asking Supervisors to back or oppose specific legislation, or to get cost of doing business increases for their organizations—where is the lack of transparency that should turn those contacting public officials into lobbyists?

Financial Cost to Nonprofits

Some may ask: if nonprofits aren’t doing anything wrong, why are they opposed to being treated as lobbyists?

One answer is the significant cost of compliance. The Chiu legislation has no cost estimate. But requiring these newly defined nonprofit “lobbyists” to file disclosure forms, attend trainings and keep records takes time. It means nonprofit workers are spending time complying with the law’s requirements rather than helping clients. And time is money.

If a nonprofit worker who has been down at City Hall talking to five Supervisor’s offices fails to file their lobbying reports, the nonprofit employer takes the hit. This means that nonprofits would need an administrator to monitor their employees “lobbying” for legislation and salary hikes; and if you think city agencies will pick up these new administrative costs, you don’t know San Francisco.

Of course, the mysterious forces propelling this legislation understand that most nonprofits will not be able to implement its provisions, and will instead be forced to curtail their public advocacy. This means that powerful real estate interests would face less opposition at City Hall, and nonprofits would push Supervisors for wage hikes at their peril.

Which leads us to again ask: why is progressive San Francisco trying to weaken advocates for populations who cannot afford high-priced lobbyists? Shouldn’t a city concerned with growing inequality be moving to empower such advocacy.

Though no new language has been drafted, Chiu’s staff has proposed exempting many 501 (c) (3) nonprofits from the lobbyist designation. But that still equates staff of 501 (c) (4) groups like the San Francisco Tenants Union and Sierra Club with the paid hired guns of the corporate world.

Amidst growing concern over economic inequality, San Francisco’s community-based nonprofits should be able to freely discuss proposals for remedying injustices with public officials without having to file reports on every one of those conversations or risk prosecution. Exposing such activities to the surveillance of real estate speculators and others who do not have the public interest at heart will only reduce social and economic justice in San Francisco.

Nonprofits need to be more engaged with city government, not less. Groups like the Human Services Network facilitate such engagement, and they deserve the city’s support, not harassment.

Chiu announced last night that he and Herrera will be making an announcement today about “government transparency” laws. Let’s hope their statement recognizes that its the city’s nonprofits who do the most to bring transparency and accountability to government. Erecting obstacles to their advocacy simply enhances powerful private interests.

Supervisor Chiu will be formally amending his legislation prior to the next hearing scheduled for April 3. This gives the mysterious forces behind this measure a chance to exempt 501 (c )(3) and (4) nonprofits entirely, and to let nonprofit workers continue to advocate for those in need.

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Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron, and Director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic. He discusses nonprofit activism in his new book, The Activist’s Handbook, 2nd ed.: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century.