Opinion

A.G. SCHNEIDERMAN OP-ED: SHINE A LIGHT ON DARK MONEY

altBy Eric T. Schneiderman

Article sponsored by Malandra’s Martial Arts

The scandal embroiling the Internal Revenue Service — involving impropriety and outright abuse of power in its regulation of nonprofits — goes beyond targeting conservative-leaning groups based on crude word searches. It runs counter to the law for the IRS to allow any "social welfare" organization — right, left or center — to spend funds for partisan political purposes, at all.

How did we get here? And how do we stop the proliferation of shadowy, tax-exempt groups that serve as vehicles for unlimited and anonymous election spending? In 2010, the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United struck down any limits on outside spending in elections. The one saving grace of this otherwise disastrous ruling was its emphasis that full disclosure of contributions and expenditures was essential to allow voters to make informed choices.

 

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In the aftermath of that decision, however, lawyers in my office's Charities Bureau, which regulates all nonprofit organizations doing business in New York, noticed a troubling pattern. Dozens of groups formed under section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code were spending substantial sums on political campaigns. And 501(c)(4)s, unlike traditional "Super PACs," are not required to publicly disclose detailed information on political contributions and expenditures.

The only reason for a wealthy individual or corporation to spend money on elections through a nonprofit front group, instead of a Super PAC, is to take advantage of the fact that nonprofits can conceal their donors.

But these groups are not supposed to play politics at all. In fact, the Internal Revenue Code requires that 501(c)(4)s operate "exclusively" for the "promotion of social welfare." The IRS, however, issued regulations that misinterpreted "exclusively" to mean "primarily," a fuzzy standard that gave these groups a wide berth to spend in elections.

 

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Because the IRS never defined the meaning of "primarily," this also created chaos for the IRS staff. Their absurd, and possibly discriminatory word searches and intrusive requests for detailed information were a direct consequence of the incoherent standard they sought to enforce.

The IRS should simply follow the Tax Code and require 501(c)(4)s to operate exclusively for social welfare purposes, just as the Internal Revenue Code directs.

Hardly a radical notion, this would force those seeking to influence elections to do so through political committees that are subject to disclosure requirements. Closing this loophole would be a logical and rational response to the present controversy. Unfortunately, logic and rationality are not the watchwords of Washington these days.

In the meantime, we need to shine some light on the flood of so-called "dark money" in state politics. After seeing the growth of 501(c)(4) political spending in New York, my office proposed new regulations to require nonprofits that spend more than $10,000 on state and local elections to disclose who funds these efforts and how they spend the money.

 

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After a lengthy review process, the new rules went into effect last week in New York. Many other states — including a number of key electoral battlegrounds — have laws on the books that give regulators the authority to enact similar disclosure requirements.

Others can and should follow suit. While we cannot control spending in federal campaigns we can, for example, ensure that New Yorkers will know who is paying for attack ads in this year's mayoral campaign and next year's race for governor. State action will also expose the scope of the problem of dark money in campaigns, adding to pressure on Congress and the IRS to take action.

Ideally, the IRS would enact a simple reform that would solve the problem in one fell swoop. But while we wait, state officials must do everything possible to ensure full disclosure of the secret campaign expenditures that the IRS' gross misconduct has allowed.

Article sponsored by Malandra’s Martial Arts

The Power of Ten's Steven White on East Ramapo's School Board

Budget season is upon us. Once again, the school board finds itself trying to piece together a budget at the last minute, without ever having substantively discussed the failure of the district to respond to the needs of the students. The usual excuses are given about state aid, taxpayer resistance, and the economy. But there is a greater problem than any of these and that is lack of vision on behalf of the school board. A lack of vision which stems from the divisive way in which the board members have gained power. A lack of vision which stems from the lack of respect that the board members have for the students, the teachers, and the concept of public education itself. 

This school board showed its real colors when it let Pedro Santana go. Pedro was the darling of the students, and beloved by the staff. He was the most effective administrator the district has ever seen, according to long time staff who served directly under prior administrators. He was inspiring the district to a new vision, one of recognizing the value of our diversity. The usual excuses about money were absent- this was a cold hearted act which seriously set back the morale of the district. 

This school board has been propelled into power by mighty financial interests who manipulate divisiveness for their own gain. They are the 1% of East Ramapo, the real estate investors who have the most to gain by gutting the budget and scapegoating the students, the teachers, and the community. 

The votes they cannot get by bullying they get by propagating myths. How often have you heard it said that “private school parents pay twice?” While it is certainly hard for many families to pay private school tuition, the truth is that as a whole, the district pays out more in services to private schools than it collects in taxes from the parents with children in private school. This is verified by the district’s own internal study. Another myth is that East Ramapo parents “just don’t vote”.  The truth is that citizens in East Ramapo vote at 3 times the rate of other districts in the county; indeed they have one of the highest voter turnout rates for school elections in the nation.  Another myth is that East Ramapo teachers are overpaid. The truth is that over the last decade East Ramapo teacher salaries have risen less than most districts in Rockland, barely keeping up with inflation. The most despicable myth of all is that our kids are just not able to succeed. The fact is that these are smart children just waiting to be given a chance. They need a district that understands them- where they come from, and where they want to go in life. They deserve a district that has a vision for their success. That is what this newsletter has dedicated itself to for the past four years.

Opinion: RBA President Al Samuels on the New Tappan Zee Bridge

For over a decade the Rockland Business Association has been fighting for a new, safe Tappan Zee Bridge. I believe ours was the first organization to champion this issue. I know ours was the first voice calling for a one-seat, dual-track rail component linking Rockland and the west bank of the Hudson with Grand Central Station.

We have always sought a mass transit system that would allow us to market our side of the river as Westchester is capable of doing because it has three such rail links with Manhattan.

I, personally, have viewed a bus mode as not being in the best interest of Rockland. I see it as a means of tapping into our workforce, particularly those in bio-pharma, without a reasonable expectation that we would have the ability to do the same. We only hear about a Suffern to Port Chester system. We have never heard about a Port Chester to Suffern system. The east to west run would be the return trip from the system carrying commuters into Westchester. Not equitable. Not desirable. And, certainly, nothing that Rockland should be supporting.

Also, BRT is not just dedicated lanes over a new bridge. It requires new, extremely expensive high-tech busses. Who is supposed to provide for the purchase and operation of these busses? Currently, only Rockland operates a commuter bus system across the TZ Bridge. Is this supposed to fall to us? I don't think so. A quick review of our financial position would explain that in no uncertain terms.

And, what if the busses were available and dedicated lanes were provided on a new bridge, is the Thruway Authority prepared to dedicate highway lanes for this system? I don't think so. Is Westchester prepared to dedicate lanes on the Cross Westchester Expressway? I doubt that, too. So how is this "system" supposed to work?

My point, here, is just to note that we support mass transit, but mass transit that would truly benefit our constituents, the businesses of Rockland. Also, we take Governor 

Cuomo at his word, there is no money for mass transit at this time -- not rail nor bus. So, it is with great concern that we read the press release regarding a new coalition demanding mass transit from day one operation of a new bridge and the articles and editorials supporting what, unfortunately, isn't advocacy, but obstructionism. When does it end?

The serviceability of the current structure is diminished each day. And, I don't believe the "experts" actually can project when that inevitable "failure" will occur. I understand the zealotry of the transportation and the environmental groups pursuing their "Holy Grail," but I am saddened by the participation of elected officials who should have a broader perspective.

I was concerned that some of my state representatives were included in the recently announced coalition, so I called them. I was assured that their "participation" was in support of the "concept" of mass transit, not for the "demand" it be included or a new bridge not be built. Like us, in the RBA, they are most concerned about the lives and welfare of the people using the TZ Bridge and believe the process of building a new bridge must be advanced.


I was amused by the participation of electeds who never have supported a new bridge and now are advocating for a mass transit system. I see their role as furthering the obstructionism we have seen for over a decade. Elected officials who oppose the plan presented by Gov. Cuomo are continuing the decade of dysfunction that has stalled this project and are jeopardizing the creation of tens of thousands of jobs at a time when we need them most.

In this time of economic challenge, it is beyond irresponsible for any elected official to present obstacles to the construction of a new bridge. Building a new bridge, as quickly as possible, will put New Yorkers in the Hudson Valley back to work and will provide for the safety of all those who use the TZB to cross the Hudson. We have fought for a new bridge for over a decade, delaying progress yet again and killing jobs at the same time simply doesn't make sense.

And, most importantly, do any of you want to see a Minneapolis on the Hudson?

Al Samuels

President/CEO

Rockland Business Association, Inc.

One Blue Hill Plaza, PO Box 1567

Pearl River, NY 10965

Phone: (845) 735-2100 Fax: (845) 735-2482

Will the President Protect Religious Rights?

by Ericka Andersen

Sometimes the White House gets the easy questions wrong. On Tuesday, White House press secretary Jay Carney was asked about a controversial mandate stemming from Obamacare that would require religious employers to provide insurance coverage for birth control despite religious objections.

The regulation in question, released by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), falls under the category of “preventative services” and would require almost all health insurance plans to cover everything from all FDA-approved contraceptives to sterilizations—without cost to the insured. The mandate includes coverage of controversial drugs like ella—which can abort an early pregnancy. Religious employers with serious moral objections to providing coverage for such services will find little help in the mandate’s narrow religious exemption. Since it was first proposed in August, the mandate has received harsh criticism with regard to its treatment of conscience rights.

It should be easy to conclude that upholding the religious rights of individuals and institutions is the optimal choice. But the White House appears bent on stifling that freedom with this mandate.

Carney assured reporters, “We want to strike the right balance between expanding coverage of preventive services and respecting religious beliefs.”

But the mandate requires religious employers to provide coverage for birth control methods that could result in abortion, a serious erosion of religious liberty in America.

Despite a religious exemption in the Obamacare HHS contraception mandate, many religious employers are not likely to get off the hook. The religious exemption is available only for organizations with a primary mission to “inculcate religious values”—which could exclude many religious service providers, among others.

But religious employers, like all Americans, won’t accept the mandate’s narrow definition for what constitutes religious exemption. As written, the religious freedom of organizations or entities with a religious affiliation that offer social services or help to people in need may not be protected.

Former Heritage research fellow Chuck Donovan noted that, though “federal law requires respect for the conscience of health care providers on many of these issues…the new HHS guidelines show disrespect for freedom of conscience.”

The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health found the exemption so narrow that they held a hearing to discuss its severe threat to conscience rights. As witnesses testified, no American should be forced to choose between compromising their beliefs or obeying government regulations—and that’s exactly what this mandate would force upon religious employers.

By failing to protect the rights of these dedicated religious organizations, who often provide services without regard to the recipients’ religion, the government does a disservice to American citizens who rely on them. Religious organizations often meet crucial health care, education, and social needs in society, something the government should reward, not punish.

The uproar surrounding the mandate is heating up everywhere. Belmont Abbey, a private Catholic college in North Carolina, has partnered with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty to sue HHS over the mandate. The mandate would force the college to provide insurance plans for students and employees that cover procedures and prescriptions the college finds morally objectionable.

The Obama Administration has already pandered to the liberal, abortion-rights community on this issue, and it’s time for them to recognize this wrong choice. If Obama wants to uphold American religious liberty as it was intended, he should alter the mandate’s offensively narrow religious exemption and allow conscience rights and religious freedom to flourish.

Obamacare Threatens Life and Liberty; Supreme Court to Decide Constitutionality in 2012

The Supreme Court’s announcement on Monday that it will consider the constitutionality of some of Obamacare’s provisions, including the individual mandate, has reignited discussion of the health care law’s many problematic provisions. In addition to increasing insurance premiums and hampering job growth, Obamacare poses significant threats to the religious liberty of institutions and individuals… and could have a serious negative impact on families.

For Belmont Abbey, a private Catholic college located in North Carolina, the most serious impact is Obamacare’s threats to religious freedom and conscience rights. Late last week, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty announced it will represent Belmont Abbey in a suit the school is bringing against the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) on behalf of Belmont Abbey over a new mandate that would force the college to provide insurance plans for students and employees that cover procedures and prescriptions the college finds morally objectionable.

Fulfilling a provision of Obamacare that requires coverage of “preventative services,” HHS adopted a rule in August that mandates nearly all insurance companies cover contraception and sterilization—without cost to the insured. The rule includes mandatory coverage of ethically controversial drugs like Ella, which can act as an abortifacient. Employers with moral and ethical objections to covering such services, like Belmont Abbey, can find little recourse in the narrowly drawn religious exemption to the rule. Without a robust religious exemption from the rule and not wishing to subsidize contraception, sterilization, or abortion, Belmont Abbey decided to sue HHS to secure the right to provide insurance coverage in accordance with the school’s religious beliefs.

Violations of institutional and individual conscience rights aren’t the only troublesome aspects of Obamacare. The law is replete with provisions that can be used to fund abortions and negatively impact families.

As Heritage research has pointed out since Obamacare first passed, the law includes multiple problematic provisions with respect to the federal role in funding elective abortion. Additionally, the limited and loose conscience protections outlined in the law are inadequate to protect pro-life medical professionals’ freedom to practice their profession in accord with their personal beliefs.

In addition to loopholes allowing federal funding of abortion, to which the vast majority of American families object, new funding streams for contraception education in schools and marriage penalties in Obamacare make the healthcare law very family-unfriendly. Heritage research demonstrates how the law restricts parents’ ability to participate in the medical decisions of their minor children, establishes disincentives for people to marry, and weakens the religious freedom of individuals and institutions.

From conscience rights to parental rights, Obamacare poses many serious challenges to American liberty.

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