Advocacy through Lobbying: Winning Issue 8 and Saving Union Terminal

By Ross Bradford posted 01-23-2015 09:00

  
 The “Yes on 8 Action Center” launched with an Instagram photo exhibit featuring images taken by local bloggers on a special behind-the-scenes tour of Union Terminal.| Credit: Cincinnati Museum Center
The “Yes on 8 Action Center” launched with an Instagram photo exhibit featuring images taken by local bloggers on a special behind-the-scenes tour of Union Terminal.| Credit: Cincinnati Museum Center

Last November, preservationists were elated when Cincinnati voters approved Issue 8, a sales tax increase to support the renovation of the historic Union Terminal, one of the country’s last remaining grand scale Art Deco railroad terminals. The National Trust and its local partners lobbied hard to get this tax increase on the ballot and then to elicit support from the voters. Preservation organizations, however, often hesitate to get involved with pitching or supporting ballot issues like Issue 8 because they are under the misconception that nonprofits are prohibited from lobbying or that it will jeopardize their nonprofit status. This simply isn’t the case, and exercising your organization’s right to lobby is a critical and powerful tool for saving places. And in the case of Union Terminal, lobbying efforts by preservationists for the ballot issue helped to save the building.

Union Terminal

The terminal, which now houses the Cincinnati Museum Center, requires costly repairs and upgrades to address the extensive deterioration in the 80-year-old structure. Cincinnati’s Cultural Facilities Task Force spent months investigating the rehabilitation needs for the iconic terminal, which was included in the National Trust’s list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 2014. Ultimately, the task force recommended a sales tax increase to support $331 million in repairs to the terminal as well as repairs to another famous Cincinnati institution, the Music Hall in Over the Rhine.

Preservationists geared up for action. Their first step was to convince the County Commissioners to place the sales tax increase on the ballot during the November general election. They succeeded partially when the County Commissioners placed a sales tax increase on the ballot that would support rehabilitation of Union Terminal only. While this was a setback for the Cultural Facilities Task Force and the efforts to save Music Hall, it suddenly presented a huge opportunity for Union Terminal—in a matter of weeks, more than $170 million in funding could become available to save the building.

 The “Yes on 8 Action Center” hosted evening events to engage potential voters, including a concert by local folk band the Young Heirlooms. | Credit: Jacob Crews
The “Yes on 8 Action Center” hosted evening events to engage potential voters, including a concert by local folk band the Young Heirlooms. | Credit: Jacob Crews

The next step for the National Trust and its partners was to encourage the public to vote in favor of Issue 8. Lobbying efforts included creating the National Trust’s first ever “pop-up,” the “Yes on 8 Action Center,” located in a prominent downtown Cincinnati location. The Action Center functioned as an interactive space for voters to learn more about Union Terminal and the proposed sales tax levy, and to pledge their support for Issue 8 while generating sharable content on social media.

The National Trust also hosted evening social gatherings at the Action Center, conducted on-the-ground canvassing, and attended numerous community events and festivals. The National Trust even engaged drivers in regular “honk and wave” rallies in an effort to diversify the ways in which it could reach different audiences. The “My Union Terminal Campaign Committee,” which was the local Political Action Committee established to support Issue 8, conducted a large advertising campaign that broadened engagement of the public through TV, radio, print, and billboard ads.

In the end, the campaign was successful in passing Issue 8 with more than 61 percent of voters approving the sales tax increase.

Lobbying Parameters for Nonprofits

Preservation groups should keep two things in mind when conducting local lobbying efforts like the one for Union Terminal: ensuring that their organization is complying with IRS reporting requirements, and ensuring compliance with any state or local lobbying laws. Many nonprofits elect to use the objective expenditure test for tracking lobbying activities. Under this approach, a nonprofit must track expenditures it makes on all lobbying activities and not spend more than the prescribed limits set forth by the IRS. By lobbying within these spending limits a nonprofit will not jeopardize its tax-exempt status. Expenditures include things like tracking staff time spent on lobbying, as well as overhead, travel, and printing expenses. It’s also important to keep in mind that all time spent preparing to lobby (i.e., drafting proposals or letters or conducting research for a proposal) also counts as a lobbying expenditure and must be tracked.

 National Trust and Cincinnati Museum Center staff used “honk and wave” events to raise awareness about Issue 8 in the weeks leading up to the November 4, 2014 election. | Credit: Cincinnati Museum Center
National Trust and Cincinnati Museum Center staff used “honk and wave” events to raise awareness about Issue 8 in the weeks leading up to the November 4, 2014 election. | Credit: Cincinnati Museum Center

Expenditures are further broken down between direct and grassroots lobbying. For IRS reporting purposes, direct lobbying is defined as communicating your organization’s position on a specific piece of legislation (or a proposal for legislation) with legislators or their staff. Grassroots lobbying is defined as communicating your position on a specific piece of legislation to the general public and calling for the public to contact their representatives or staff in order to influence the legislator’s position on the legislation. Because ballot issues are voted on by the public, all lobbying for them is considered direct lobbying.

In addition to the IRS reporting requirements, organizations should also become familiar with state or local lobbying laws, which vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. In some instances the laws and implementing regulations may not be clear, so consulting with local counsel familiar with state or local lobbying laws is advisable. The secretary of state for each state typically provides valuable resources and guidance on state lobbying laws which can be found on their websites.

Some municipalities have also created their own requirements for lobbying at the city and county government levels. For work on Issue 8, the National Trust was permitted to conduct lobbying activities at the local level, but Ohio law required it to file two separate disclosure reports (one before and one after the election) with the local board of elections. These reports, which are made publicly available immediately after they are filed, provided great detail on the expenditures groups made in support or opposition of Issue 8 and were quickly reviewed by local media outlets and used in their reporting on the sales tax issue.

While the use of ballot issues can be an effective advocacy tool with enormous rewards for preservation organizations, it does require a great deal of preparation work – from getting the measure on the ballot to lobbying the local electorate. If your organization is considering lobbying, there are a number of resources online that provide information on about lobbying and nonprofits. Your organization’s tax preparer can also offer valuable insight on IRS requirements for tracking your organization’s expenditures.

Ross M. Bradford is Senior Associate General Counsel for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.



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