Alibi V.18 No.18 • April 30-May 6, 2009 

Council Bite

Nonprofits Back Under the Microscope

The city’s Charter Review Task Force tossed a smoldering election issue to city councilors, recommending they deal with this hot potato themselves.

A proposed charter amendment would require nonprofits to register as political action committees (PACs) if they communicate their opinions of candidates and propositions during the four months before an election. If considered a PAC, an organization would be required to disclose its donors. Under federal law, contributors to nonprofit organizations do not have to be made public.

The task force has been meeting for nearly a year and reviewing the city’s charter in order to recommend changes to the document that guides how the city runs. At a Thursday, April 23 meeting, close to a dozen representatives from various nonprofits told the members about how devastating this measure could be. One person spoke in support.

The issue came to light in December when several nonprofits joined together and sued the state in federal court, challenging the state’s order to have nonprofits register as PACs and list their donors. Eli Lee, who sits on the Charter Review Task Force, is an executive director of one of those nonprofits. The lawsuit is pending.

The state’s order to disclose donors came after flyers went out in the months leading up to last year’s primary and general elections. The flyers focused on a couple of incumbent state legislators, exposing their voting records and positions on key issues.

Several speakers reminded the task force that many of the state’s nonprofits are service-oriented, not politically focused, and fill huge gaps in providing services for a poor state like New Mexico.

Peter Simonson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, said the proposed change is unconstitutional because its effect chills free speech. It would put a damper, he said, on public discourse in the months leading up to an election.

Other nonprofits such as Enlace Comunitario and the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness said this measure would cause many contributors, including private and national foundations, to hesitate before giving money. According to Enlace Executive Director Claudia Medina, last year the group received a large donation on the condition of anonymity. Those who would really be impacted are the most vulnerable of the population, she added.

Lynne Andersen, president of the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties, spoke in favor of the proposal. She said there have been moves made in election reform to get big corporate money out of politics, and then, out of nowhere, nonprofits show up and use big money to influence elections.

City Attorney Bob White said the proposed changes are not much different than what’s already on the books and suggested that maybe the issue is one of enforcement. White said the City Council could alter Albuquerque’s ethics and elections codes without voter approval if seven of nine city councilors support the changes.