Laws aimed at curbing powerful lobbyists go too far in targeting public-minded nonprofits
Government is supposed to listen to the people, including the many nonprofit organizations that work to improve the public sphere.
But new rules on lobbying at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, first imposed in January, are making that much harder. They should be rewritten. The city of Chicago has passed similar legislation but has put it on hold because it created so many problems. The city also should make sure to get this right.
Nonprofit groups are a vital force in the Chicago area. They have successfully pushed for everything from community gardens and healthful schools to the minimum wage Fight for $15 and cleaner air and water. They make the Chicago area a better place, often seeking remedies to historic injustices, and they should not be confused with the big private concerns, staffed with highly paid lobbyists, that seek strictly private gain.
But now, the new MWRD rules require individuals at nonprofits to register as lobbyists and record all discussions they have with officials at government agencies, even if that interaction is nothing more than answering the phone when an official calls for technical advice. After one recent brief email exchange, an employee with an environmental group was reminded by a government lawyer of the need to register herself.
Only ‘good actors’ are following law
If this were a case of an extra burden falling on nonprofits so as to limit the ability of the usual political insiders to cut deals behind closed doors, that would be one thing. But so far, 100% — yes, every single one — of the contacts recorded under the new law at the MWRD have involved nonprofits. As of last month, eight of the 10 “lobbyists” registered on the MWRD site work for nonprofits, including the Metropolitan Planning Council, the Nature Conservancy and the Healthy Schools Campaign. One public official told us that’s because only “the good actors” are even paying attention to the new law.
The annual registration fee of $300 per person might not seem like much, but it is a burden to a small nonprofit, especially an all-volunteer group that has no budget at all. Several workers at a nonprofit might be required to register, and the same fees might have to be paid over again to more than one government agency. The costs add up quickly.
Also burdensome is the additional paperwork, which takes time away from doing the actual work of a nonprofit. Cheryl Johnson, executive director of People for Community Recovery, told us that her small Southeast Side organization will have to do additional fundraising just to hire someone to handle the extra paperwork.
Perhaps what worries small nonprofits the most, though, is the threat of fines of hundreds of dollars a day for failing to comply with the impractical new lobbying rules, something that could put a nonprofit out of business. Also, individuals at nonprofits can face personal liability.
Fight over power plants lasted 12 years
A fight by nonprofit environmentalist groups, for example, to close the coal-burning Fisk and Crawford power plants in Chicago lasted 12 years. That’s a lot of financial exposure if authorities decided one or more of the nonprofits fighting the good cause failed to report their activities — even something as minimal as answering a phone call — properly. Some nonprofits now are declining invitations to join task forces because they don’t want to risk being fined.
“It is chilling,” one environmentalist told us. “We need this fixed.”
Kimberly Wasserman, executive director of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, said that just because it might be a challenge for government officials to sort out who’s a genuine nonprofit and who’s obliquely doing the bidding of a profit-driven business or industry is no reason to lump officials of nonprofits with private-sector lobbyists.
“For us, a lot of the problem is a lack of clarity,” she said. “If an alderman shows up to your event uninvited, is that lobbying?”
Many health, environmental victories started with nonprofits
Many public health and environmental victories in the Chicago area in recent years began as campaigns by nonprofits, some of which also provided continued technical advice. Schoolyard gardens owe much to the efforts of the Space to Grow program. Nonprofits were a driving force behind programs to reduce flooding and improve water quality.
Similar efforts in the future, which undeniably would benefit the Chicago area, are now at risk.
“If the goal is to reduce the power of special interests, you don’t want to shut people out of the process,” said Jack Darin, director of the Sierra Club’s Illinois chapter. “Nonprofits are the way many people find their way into the process.”
Recent revelations about insider dealing by an army of lobbyists for ComEd naturally have made elected officials wary of any changes in the rules that might appear to diminish transparency in government. And we’re all for transparency.
But the new rules should make sensible distinctions, sparing the low-budget nonprofits whose aim is to make things better for all of us.
Activists and nonprofit groups worked for years to close the coal-burning Fisk Generation Station in Pilsen (above) and the Crawford Generation Station in South Lawndale.