State associations and activist nonprofit organizations must be familiar with the Texas regulatory environment governing lobbying, campaign or election activities during this lively election year and the coming 85th Texas legislative session in January 2017.
Avoiding violations of these laws and regulations was the subject of a presentation on August 26 at the State Bar of Texas 14th Annual Governance of Nonprofit Organizations course. Read the presentation summary here.
The presenters were Richard W. Meyer, Austin attorney who represents state associations, state contractors and nonprofits that secure state contracts and grants; and attorney Ross Fischer, former head of the Texas Ethics Commission, who represents a variety of clients in the public sector.
In reviewing the advocacy and public policy activities of your organization, it’s important to keep an eye on these state restrictions and regulations:
- Persons or organizations who receive or spend money to directly communicate with a member of the legislative or executive branch to influence official action may have to register as a lobbyist under Chapter 305, Texas Government Code. The thresholds for registration are lower than you might think, so review the registration statute at www.ethics.state.tx.us or contact the Texas Ethics Commission at (512)463-5800. There is a special, simpler registration category for persons registering as a lobbyist for a nonprofit organization at a reduced annual fee.
- Although corporations may never contribute to campaigns, they frequently form political action committees (PACs) as a way to assemble funds to influence legislators or issues in play. And, yes, a Texas nonprofit corporation of any kind or any Section 501(c) category is a corporation. Using nonprofits to assemble funds has been the source of “dark money” controversies in the legislature.
- Ordinary concerned citizens who push an organization’s mission in the political arena, if they are “acting in concert”, can be considered a political committee and may have to register as a PAC. An Ethics Commission rule presumes that a group has a “principal purpose of accepting political contributions or making political expenditures” if more than 25 percent of its annual contributions are devoted to campaign activities. See Texas Election Code Section 251.001(12), Commission Rule 20.1(20) and the article.
Become familiar with these registration requirements if your organization finds itself substantially involved in legislative or public policy activities and direct relationships with elected officials or their campaigns. The Q&A slides accompanying the article include a number of commonly-asked questions that address circumstances that can trigger compliance with these state lobbying, campaign and election regulations.