Nonprofits and policy change

By Ret Boney

CARY, N.C. – North Carolina’s fiscal outlook is strong and nonprofits should do more to influence policies for their constituents’ benefit, nonprofit and government leaders say.

“Because you are so grounded and connected to your communities and their problems, the real solutions are the ones you know,” Ran Coble, executive director of the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research, told nonprofit officials at a statewide policy forum March 3 in Cary.

Nonprofit officials from across the state heard from government and nonprofit leaders about the state budget, priorities for the upcoming legislative session, and ways to get more involved in both.

More than 200 people attended the annual Public Policy Forum of the N.C. Center for Nonprofits, a Raleigh-based association of more than 1,500 nonprofits.

“This is the best economic situation we’ve been in in years,” Dan Gerlach, senior policy advisor for Gov. Mike Easley, told the group.  “We estimate that the budget is running well ahead of forecast.  That’s a good thing, but we realize that may not last forever.”

Easley’s priorities for the legislative session that begins May 9 include putting more money in the state’s rainy-day fund to cover unforeseen needs, and putting aside special funds for dealing with natural disasters, Gerlach said.

Easley also hopes to improve teacher pay and high-school education, he said.

Easley also want to find ways to better serve “the least of those among us,” Gerlach said, by putting more money into mental health, reducing the waiting list for child-care subsidies, and putting more money into the state’s housing trust fund, a source of money for building and renovating affordable housing.

State Rep. Daniel McComas, a Republican from New Hanover County, told the group that state lawmakers likely would focus on reform during this year’s session, including lobbying and campaign-finance reform.

State Sen. Kay Hagan, a Democrat from Guilford County, said the session this year likely would take up other issues as well, including education, health care, prison construction and fiscal discipline.

Coble told the group that nonprofits should play a role in shaping the budget and policy concerns lawmakers take up this spring.

“Being involved in public policy is one way for you to fulfill your mission,” he said, urging even small nonprofits to leverage their impact by working on the policy level in addition to providing direct services.

By investing time and convening power, along with a nominal financial investment, he said, the A.J. Fletcher Foundation in Raleigh spearheaded an effort last year resulting in an additional $5 million appropriation to the state’s housing trust fund.

At the forum, the N.C. Center for Nonprofits also announced its public policy agenda for 2006, including efforts on both the state and federal fronts.

At the federal level, the agenda includes working for passage of a set of nonprofit-sector reforms that include allowing charitable tax deductions for non-itemizing taxpayers, said Rob Schofield, director of public policy and government relations for the center.

The center also will fight so-called “gag-rule” legislation that would limit the advocacy activities of nonprofits receiving federal funds, and will monitor anticipated legislation to strengthen regulation of lobbying, he said.

In North Carolina, the center will work to match the state’s definition of a charitable nonprofit to the federal definition in order to ensure that all charitable nonprofits receive the sales tax refunds due them, Schofield said, and will work to protect the state law allowing non-itemizers to deduct charitable donations.

The full list of the center’s public policy priorities can be found on its website as of March 8.

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