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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Right to Know | Open records of private nonprofits, some argue.

CONCORD – The records of private nonprofits who rely on taxpayer money to survive should be subject to the Right-to-Know Law, legislative advocates and state employee union leaders urged Tuesday.

Opponents warn these nonprofits would have to spend scarce resources to comply with disclosure requirements at a time when private donations are declining in the midst of the recession.

The House of Representatives is expected today to pass judgment on the amended bill (HB 1356) of state Rep. Rick Watrous, D-Concord, that would cover nonprofits with annual budgets of at least $100,000 that get at least half of their money from taxpayer sources.

“To me, it’s common sense that public scrutiny should follow public money,” said Watrous.

“I think long term this would be good for New Hampshire.”

Several years ago, Watrous lost a court battle to try to get records released for the taxpayer-financed public access cable channel in Concord that had employed him.

The bill would define these nonprofit groups as public agencies whose records would be subject to disclosure but the group would not have to open its meetings to the public.

In addition, records on fund-raising donors, attorney-client exchanges and juvenile records for these nonprofit groups would be exempt from disclosure.

Diana Lacey, chief labor negotiator for the New Hampshire State Employees Association, said her group backs the bill, given a rapid increase in private contracts while rank-and-file state employees faced layoffs over the past year.

“We are building entire networks of service delivery outside of government,” Lacey said. “These agencies are doing the public’s work.”

Rep. Philip Preston, D-Ashland, said these nonprofits already submit annual reports on their finances to the Charitable Trusts Division in the attorney general’s office.

Further, Preston said the disclosure mandate could extend beyond services that taxpayer dollars provide to the entire mission of the nonprofit groups.

“This bill would fundamentally change the Right-to-Know Law, extending its coverage to a broad spectrum of private nonprofit corporations, based not on any governmental function, but solely on their receipt of government funding.”

Kevin Landrigan can be reached at 321-7040 or klandrigan@nashuatelegraph.com.