Advocates of same-sex civil unions overcame a disadvantage in successfully campaigning for the issue in the Legislature over the past year. While these proponents were required to file taxes, their main opposition, Hawaii Family Forum, lobbying against civil unions, claimed tax exemptions for its expenditures. No lobby should benefit from abuse of federal tax laws that are intended to aid nonprofit charities.
While it has yet to file its tax returns, Hawaii Family Forum has disclosed lobbying expenses of $74,000 in 2009, which must be less than 20 percent of its total expenses during the year to comply with federal law governing charitable organizations. That means its entire expenditure must have exceeded $370,000 to comply.
That is not likely, since Hawaii Family Forum appears to be primarily a religion-based group that spent $2,000 on lobbying in 2007 and nothing in 2008, before proponents ambitiously brought the issue before legislators. It reported spending $134,400 in 2007 on "community education" and "dissemination of educational materials" and $67,800 on those activities in 2008.
Hawaii Family Forum received $20,000 from the Colorado-based Focus on the Family Action for lobbying last year through radio commercials and $7,500 for lobbying in January and February of this year. The Hawaii Catholic Conference, which has partnered with Hawaii Family Forum to lobby on the issue, also has paid for media ads.
"They seem to be doing nothing but lobbying," said non-practicing lawyer Hannah Miyamoto, who has filed a complaint against Hawaii Family Forum with the Internal Revenue Service.
Former state legislator Dennis Arakaki, the group’s executive director who registered with the state as its lobbyist last year, told the Star-Advertiser’s Susan Essoyan that lobbying sometimes is "a matter of interpretation." He says the group engages in education, not just lobbying. Indeed, that line can be blurred.
The organization’s avoidance of taxes contrasts with other groups involved in the issue, including Focus on the Family Action, which registered as a social welfare organization and did not accept tax-deductible donations. Nor did the pro-civil union Equality Hawaii and the Washington, D.C.-based Human Rights Campaign.
Michael Golojuch Jr. of the Hawaii Citizens for the Separation of State and Church, which neither raises nor spends money, has complained as an individual to the state Ethics Commission that Hawaii Family Forum has understated its lobbying expenses, including Arakaki’s salary.
The Legislature narrowly approved the civil unions bill on the last day of this year’s session in April, and Gov. Linda Lingle has yet to decide whether to veto it or let it become law, with or without her signature. The lobbying on that or related issues could extend to future sessions.
The IRS should resolve the dispute before the next round of the battle over government recognition of same-sex couples. Lobbies cannot be allowed to operate fast and loose — especially under the cover of charity advantage — without the consequence of losing their tax-exempt status.