In the ornate public gallery of the Idaho House of Representatives, lobbyist Erik Makrush of the Idaho Freedom Foundation leaned over to a reporter sitting next to him and whispered, “If you have any questions, you can ask me.” The House was debating one of 11 bills that would trim the powers of urban renewal agencies in the state, a hot political issue in Idaho’s 2011 legislative session. Makrush said he’d written all of them. A year later, Idaho Freedom Foundation President Wayne Hoffman persuaded a House committee chairwoman to pull a bill he opposed just as debate was about to start on the floor. Both episodes illustrate the raw political power of a nonprofit charity that some believe is abusing its lucrative tax-free status.
Although charitable organizations are allowed to do some lobbying without risking their tax benefits, the Idaho Freedom Foundation actively pushes and opposes legislation on dozens of issues every session in ways that more closely resemble a full-on lobbying group. “If Wayne Hoffman can call a committee chairman and have a bill pulled, that’s pretty remarkable clout,” said House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston.
At issue is whether taxpayers should be subsidizing its activities. As a charity organized under Internal Revenue Code section 501(c)(3), contributions to the Idaho Freedom Foundation are tax deductible. Contributions to lobbying groups organized under section 501(c)(4), such as the Sierra Club or the National Rifle Association, are not.
In its scant five years in existence, the IFF has become one of the most active and influential groups in Idaho’s Statehouse. “We have good relationships,” Hoffman said of his group’s activities. “So they (lawmakers) take our calls, they listen to us, they read our emails.” “They’re pretty darn active,” said Sen. Cherie Buckner-Webb, D-Boise. “They’re visible in every committee room I serve on.” Hoffman maintains it’s really not a lobbying group and that it does only a small amount of lobbying. He reported spending just $13,000 on lobbying in 2012, out of $447,108 in total expenses. In 2011, he reported just $10,290 spent on lobbying; in 2010 and 2009, he reported that the group spent zero to influence legislation.
“We’re an education organization,” said Hoffman, who was paid $99,645 by the group in 2012. “Our biggest focus is the education of policymakers.”
However, experts say IFF likely is underreporting its lobbying under federal tax laws, which potentially could endanger its tax-free status. “I think there’s a serious yellow flag here,” said Lloyd Hitoshi Mayer, a nationally known expert on nonprofit tax law and a law professor at the University of Notre Dame; you can read my full story here from Sunday’s Spokesman-Review.