New Hampshire lawmakers exclude nonprofits from Right-to-Know law

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 By Nick Pappas, editorial page editor, The Telegraph of Nashua, N.H.

Should the New Hampshire Right-to-Know Law apply to nonprofit corporations that receive the majority of their funding from state or local governments, that is, the taxpayer?

 Apparently not – at least not this year.

 The New Hampshire House of Representatives voted 214-80 against a bill (HB 1356) that would have defined as a “public agency” ­– and thereby subject it to the state’s open government law – any nonprofit organization whose annual revenue exceeds $100,000 and that receives more than half its funding from the government.

 State Rep. Rick Watrous, a Concord Democrat and the bill’s prime sponsor, argued that the change in law was needed because state, county and municipal governments are turning to nonprofit agencies more and more to provide services once handled by the government. As such, he argued, it was only appropriate for these agencies to open up their records so the public can be assured its tax dollars are being spent wisely.

 But critics responded the bill represented an unnecessary intrusion of the government into the nonprofit sector, especially at a time when many of the state’s 7,600 nonprofit organizations are still coping with financial woes brought on by the recession.

 Besides, they argued, nonprofits already provide much of the information in question through their annual Form 990 filings with the Internal Revenue Service. These public forms – which can be requested from the IRS or viewed online through Guidestar.org – contain revenue and expense reports, a balance sheet detailing assets, liabilities, contracts, leases and compensation, and related financial information.

While the bill may have been put to rest for this legislative session, the question of the public’s access to nonprofit financial information remains very much alive.

In January, the New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled that the Local Government Center, the state’s municipal lobby, must publicly disclose salary information about its more than 100 employees. The ruling culminated a seven-year fight by the Professional Firefighters of New Hampshire to determine whether the center used employee health care premiums for other purposes.

 While acknowledging that the center’s workers were not public employees in the traditional sense, the court concluded their salaries should be disclosed because they are funded by dues contributed by municipal taxpayers.

“Public scrutiny can expose corruption, incompetence, inefficiency, prejudice and favoritism,” Chief Justice John Broderick wrote in the court’s unanimous ruling. “Such scrutiny is necessary for the public to assess whether the LGC, which has a conceded status as a governmental entity subject to the Right-to-Know Law, is being properly and efficiently managed and for educating member municipalities regarding whether continued membership would be a wise expenditure of taxpayer money.”

Don’t expect this issue to go away anytime soon.

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