The House Appropriations Committee approved legislation in the session’s third week that would force non-governmental organizations that receive state money to open up their related records and meetings to the public.
Although they regularly feel the heat from good government types, NGOs fell under heavy political fire last fall when Treasurer John Kennedy discovered there were at least 36 groups not complying with a state law that requires full financial reporting. Sen. Yvonne Dorsey-Colomb, D-Baton Rouge, took issue with Kennedy’s findings, arguing that the Colomb Foundation, a nonprofit founded by her husband, was mistakenly added to the noncompliance list.
The definition of a NGO depends on who you ask. Some call it pork served up for lawmakers’ pet groups back in their districts, while many have referred to the process as a slush fund in the past. Still, others are quick to point out that most of the groups, which are overwhelmingly nonprofits, serve important functions.
Rep. Simone Champagne, R-Erath, author of HB 225, said she wants to make sure any NGO that receives taxpayer-backed dollars from a budget line item will have to agree to a state audit; release all related documents when requested; and advertise and hold a public meeting on how the state money will be spent.
Skeptical lawmakers argued that the proposed guidelines might put too much on the NGOs, many of which are small community organizations. “If they are that concerned about having public meetings and opening up their records they shouldn’t be applying for public money,” countered Champagne.
Rep. Roy Burrell, D-Shreveport, repeatedly voiced concerns ranging from privacy to costs. He said the NGOs he has worked with in the past have received only a few thousand here and there, and that having to spend some of it on advertising public meetings would only water down their missions. “How much damage can you do with $3,000 or $4,000?” Burrell asked.
Champagne said that most of the NGOs she reviewed receive on average around $20,000 from the state — some much more — and not the $5,000 or less category Burrell cited.