Bill would strengthen public’s right to know
We need to strengthen New Hampshire’s Right-to-Law Law by applying it to nonprofit corporations that receive the majority of their funding from the state or local government.
HB 1356, which the House will vote on this week, would let taxpayers better know how their money is being spent.
As the New Hampshire Supreme Court stated in this January’s ruling on Professional Firefighters of New Hampshire v. Local Government Center: “Public scrutiny can expose corruption, incompetence, inefficiency, prejudice and favoritism … Knowing how a public body is spending taxpayer money in conducting public business is essential to the transparency of government, the very purpose underlying the Right To Know Law.”
The Local Government Center is a nonprofit corporation funded by taxpayers’ dollars. It took the Professional Firefighters of New Hampshire eight years and hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees to make the LGC records open to the public under the Right-to-Law Law (RSA 91-A).
The public’s right to know, enshrined by Article 8 of the New Hampshire Constitution, should not be dependent on whether one has deep pockets. The law should better serve the public by making clear that nonprofits that rely upon public money must open their records to the public.
The majority of states now extend the public’s right to know to nongovernmental bodies that receive governmental funding or benefits.
HB 1356, as amended, would classify tax-exempt nonprofit corporations that receive the majority of their revenues from local governmental bodies as public agencies subject to the Right-To-Know Law. If the nonprofit corporation has a total annual revenue of more than $100,000 and receives more than 50 percent of its funding from the state or its political subdivisions, it would be defined as a public agency whose records would be open to the public.
HB 1356 is needed because our state, counties, cities and towns are increasingly turning to nonprofit corporations to provide services that have been formerly provided by local government. Social services, administration, communication, even law enforcement are now sometimes provided by nonprofit corporations.
These corporations enjoy the tax-exempt status of a public entity under IRS rules and many do not even go through a bidding process in order to receive taxpayers’ money – yet they refuse to open their records to the public.
Nonprofits – 501(c)3 charities – are mushrooming in New Hampshire. Ten years ago there were 3,800 registered nonprofits in New Hampshire. That number has doubled to 7,600.
When you think of your favorite charity, you think of writing out a check and being able to deduct that. Yet local government is increasingly giving our money to nonprofits that we might not even know exist – much less willingly give our money to. We even have SWAT units being set up as municipal-supported charities in New Hampshire.
Some nonprofit corporations argue that they already have enough transparency because they file annual reports with the attorney general’s office and the IRS. However, these filings provide but a partial snapshot of what the corporation was doing a year or more ago. In no way do they provide the detailed, current information that a citizen or the press could attain under the Right-to-Know Law.
It has also been claimed that this bill’s increased accountability would hinder the covered nonprofit corporations. However, thousands of our state and local governmental agencies routinely function under the Right-to-Know open records law.
The public scrutiny afforded by this goes a long way in assuring that these agencies are operated in a responsible manner. If a corporation does not want to open its records to the public, it should not rely on the public’s money to exist.
Every year our local governments give millions of taxpayer dollars to nonprofit corporations to perform certain functions. Having these nonprofits that are primarily funded by local government subject to the Right-to-Know Law would better assure that taxpayers’ money is well spent and – in the words of New Hampshire Supreme Court Chief Justice John Broderick – help “expose corruption, incompetence, inefficiency, prejudice and favoritism.” This transparency and direct accountability could ultimately save the state, its towns and counties millions of dollars.
I urge you to contact your representatives to support HB 1356 and strengthen the public’s right to know.
Rick Watrous, a Concord Democrat, is a member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives.