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Idaho Freedom Foundation’s charitable status scrutinized

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.

Help for homeless families

The South Perry Blog spent the morning with staff, volunteers and friends of Interfaith Hospitality of Spokane, which is located at the Richard Allen Apartments. Executive director Madelyn Bafus explained that Interfaith is all about the child.

“We help the family in the way it presents itself, but we are all about the child,” Bafus said. “If it’s good for the child, we all about that.” Interfaith is not a traditional drop-in shelter, it’s more like a rotating shelter. Twelve churches of different denominations, located across Spokane, take turns providing shelter for Interfaith’s families one week at a time.

“The families are at the church over night, then come back to the day center or go to school during the day,” Bafus explained. Interfaith provides roll-out beds that are transported from church to church. “We help between 20 and 25 families every year,” said Bafus. “We usually have a waiting list but we actually have an opening right now.” Interfaith doesn’t charge anything and families can stay with the organization for three months. “But we never turn someone out to homelessness,” Bafus said.

One client is Bridget and her four children. She came to Spokane 15 months ago, in an effort to escape a stalking and abusive ex-husband. “We arrived on Amtrak with four kids, 18 bags clothing and one bag of favorite toys for everyone,” said Bridget. “I had a plan, but perhaps not the best thought out plan.” Bridget had her tax refund and was planning to find a place to live in Spokane, using that money for a security deposit and the first three months of rent. That didn’t quite work out and soon she’d spent what she had on living in hotels. “We had no history here, no rental history. Landlords wanted to know about employment, it wasn’t enough that I had rent for three months,” she said. Bridget found Interfaith and can’t say enough good things about the help she got there. “They were with us every step of the way,” Bridget said. She learned about and joined programs run by SNAP, Career Path Services and many other local non-profits. Eventually the family found housing and now Bridget is in a much better position to pursue the next goal: “I really want to get a job - that is the next step. And I also give back to Interfaith whenever I can.”

Doug Beane is the co-coordinator of Interfaith Hospitality at St. John’s Cathedral. “I think the program runs very smoothly,” Beane said. “The most challenging part is pulling together a roster of reliable volunteers, but we got that now.” Volunteers provide a warm dinner for the families at the church, and cold breakfast items in the mornings. The church also have two over-night hosts staying with the families. “It’s one week at a time, Sunday to Sunday, and how it works out depends on how many people we have,” Beane said. “It’s often more busy before the families get there, with cleaning up and getting ready and all that.”

Bafus said they always need new churches to join the non-profit: “There is a need out there and we try to meet it, one family at a time. We can always use help from another church.”

Vanessa Behan benefit breakfast coming up

It’s a morning like any other at Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery, which is located just a few blocks off Perry Street. The nursery has been around for 23 years and it is often a last resort for families who need someone to watch their kids, while they figure out how to deal with circumstances such as homelessness, divorce or abuse, or perhaps a parent is recovering from surgery and needs a little  help. The nursery is open 24-7 to children from birth to age six, but it doesn’t have room for everyone.

“Just this year we’ve turned away children 500 times,” said Amy Swanson, the executive director of Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery. “Some of those are repeat requests, so it can be the same family that has called us more than once.”

To better serve the families that are turned down, Vanessa Behan now has the Hope Program which is essentially a follow-up program.

“If we turn someone down, we call and follow up with them within 24 hours,” said Swanson. “We worried that when families are turned away, they may not ever call us again - and then how do we reach them?” Swanson said the Hope program aims to connect families with other resources in the neighborhood and throughout the community. The program is founded by a grant from the Inland Northwest Community Foundation and one private donation of more than $20,000.

“To us, a major gift is $1,000 so for one person to show up and give that much money was just unbelievable,” said Swason.

Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery has benefitted from the proceeds from the South Perry Street Fair and Parade since that event began nine years ago, and Swanson said the organization feels strongly connected to the neighborhood.

“We have been very fortunate to benefit from that,” said Swanson. “About the neighborhood, we like that it’s small, that we know people, we know who’s who arond here.”

The next major fundraiser for Vanessa Behan is the annual benefit breakfast at the Red Lion Inn at the Park on June 8, from 7:30-8:30 a.m. The featured speaker is a young woman who used to be at the nursery very frequently when she was a child. There is no minimum donation for the breakfast. For tickets, call (509) 535-3155 and ask for Kendel.

Donations of diapers and formula are always welcome - especially Similac formula and bigger size diapers.

“We tell our families not to bring anything here,” said Swanson. “When we have a big diaper drive, like the one we just had with KREM-TV and Rosauers, those diapers go right back out the door with the families - we always need diapers to use here.”