The dust has settled. The rotunda is quiet. The legislators have returned to their respective districts. But our work has just begun. TANO caught up with Texas public policy & nonprofit expert Rick Meyer to get his perspective on recently passed legislation, how nonprofit organizations can stay active between sessions, and the challenges & opportunities of being a nonprofit operating in the Lonestar State.
TANO: September 1st marks the day that legislation passed this session goes into effect. What should Texas nonprofits be aware of?
Rick Meyer (RM):The legislature seems to have continued its trend of selecting by name or cause those charitable organizations that will benefit from voluntary citizen contributions by way of “checking a box” donation spaces on various state agency forms. Senate Bill 272 (SB 272), for example, permits an extra donation to the Special Olympics when completing a DMV auto registration form and fee. House Bill 1584 (HB 1584) permits donations to fund distribution of legally-harvested venison to groups that provide food assistance. Most notable is the passage of HB 975, which provides Texas major league professional sports clubs to conduct high-dollar raffles in their home venue at every game to benefit the club’s designated charity (this item is subject to voter approval in November). These are all good ideas, but what about the causes and other organizations that don’t have the clout in the legislature to obtain these designations, which are written into law? This trend deserves more thoughtful examination.
HB 1151 at least recognizes that unpaid interns performing useful work for organizations and corporations will be granted limited legal rights. They will be protected by the state’s workplace harassment laws and be able to file a complaint or institute a legal action as if they were employees. Most interesting is a six-part test of what constitutes an unpaid intern, which can be read by accessing Texas Labor Code, Section 21.1065
The “social enterprise” movement continues to gain momentum nationwide but has not found a unified voice or critical mass in Texas or in the policy matters the legislature considered in 2015. The idea of innovative, sustainable and self-sufficient nonprofits to drive mission and good works has wide appeal to legislators of all stripes, but we seldom see the social enterprise model out front in discussions about empowering organizations and leaders to assume government programs or advance complex social initiatives.
TANO: What is the best way for a Texas nonprofit or community service professional to advocate for a cause?
RM: Every organization should make itself known to its local senator and representative and their staffs. Scheduling a visit to the organization’s facility, office, event or program by a legislator is golden; they seldom forget the experience of seeing good people doing good work in their community. Develop the relationship in the interim period when the legislator’s schedule is more relaxed, rather than waiting to make a hurried contact during the hectic legislative session. Don’t forget Legislative staff members – they appreciate attention and thanks, too.
TANO: What can we do between legislative sessions to stay up to date?
RM: Autumn is the anxious time when we read about the scores of new laws that go into effect. Some are agreeable to us, but the ones that get our attention are the new laws and policies that make our life more difficult or that we just don’t like. The lesson should be that it’s too late then to despair. Every organization’s leaders have an obligation to keep informed as to the public policy, regulatory and legal developments that will impact with organization and mission. And not just during the legislative session. Between sessions, there are interim legislative committee studies and work groups on various issues (probably to be announced January 2016), new state agency rules that are proposed and published in the Texas Register for all to see and submit comments, and ongoing coverage of issues of interest in the media.
With today’s online resources, it’s much easier to find and track government activity affecting your organization that ever before. Don’t forget online posts and comments by legislators – they can be very useful and revealing.
TANO: As the former Board Chair of TANO, you have seen an ebb and flow of nonprofit organizational activity in the Texas advocacy sector. Looking to the future, how can TANO members unite to become a singular voice for the sector?
RM: Unfortunately, during the legislative session, the nonprofit sector provides no unified voice to legislators. Conversely, groups operating in the private industry, professional groups, or unions of local governments present their interests consistently and strategically.
Various charitable and nonprofit causes and organizations stay within their own interests and turf, e.g. arts, environment, social programs, social justice, consumer rights, children and education. It is remarkable to see how people who should know each other aren’t acquainted, and joined in their efforts — except when some crisis brings everyone into the same room and quick relationships are necessary.
Associations of nonprofits such as TANO can play a key role in the legislative process by representing the interests of mid-size and small community-based organizations that often are disproportionately impacted by proposed government regulations aimed at problem or issues occurring among large, visible nonprofit institutions. “One size does not fit all” should be a factor applied when considering new legislation or regulations.
TANO: How long have you been an advocate for the Texas nonprofit sector?
RM: I “worked” my first legislative session for a nonprofit client in 1989 and have learned many lessons since, mostly the hard way. With today’s online resources and online live viewing of legislative deliberations, even modestly-funded organizations can keep up with developments in Austin, even without having a presence there. Twenty years ago, you had to be on the scene in the halls of the Capitol, bearing pounds of paperwork, and chasing about the hallways and staff offices to beg for copies of the latest draft of a bill or committee report before it was heard.
Today, these working documents are generally available online, and quickly. Your opponent may be able to run faster than you can, but it’s almost impossible of them to hide thanks to Texas’ relatively transparent legislative processes and online services.
TANO: If you could change one thing about the Texas legislative landscape with regards to the nonprofit sector, what would that be?
RM: An ongoing concern of mine, in every legislative session, is to turn to the end of proposed legislation affecting nonprofits to look for a very serious item: Does the proposed law also make failure to comply a criminal act, misdemeanor or felony? It’s popular for drafters of legislation to give a bill some gravitas by adding a criminal penalty for violation of the law, rather than specifying some other civil or government agency enforcement remedy. Most of our local charitable organizations are managed or operated by ordinary citizens, acting in good faith, donating their time and money, to improve their communities. Exposing these good people to a criminal prosecution for technical or benign violations of some statute is overkill and usually not justified.
TANO: How does Texas stack up with other states in regards to nonprofit support and oversight?
RM: All things considered, the Texas nonprofit sector still enjoys a light regulatory environment when compared to other states, where it is common to see stout annual registration fees for nonprofit corporations, complex registration and reporting of solicitation of funds from the public, licensing of certain kinds of charities, online posting of audits or financial statements, and regulation of fundraising consultants or event managers. Charitable raffles, auctions, bingo and other popular fundraising activities in Texas see relatively little investigative or enforcement activity from state agencies, except in those extreme cases that make the headlines.
We are appreciative of Rick’s insights and analysis of the The Texas Legislative Session. If you want to get a more in depth perspective, visit Rick’s site: nonprofitlawandpolicy.com
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