Overhaul of Florida charities law seems headed for passage

04/03/2014 7:23 PM

09/08/2014 7:13 PM

A sweeping charities reform package is breezing through the Legislature despite earlier concerns that legitimate philanthropies might be harmed by new rules.

The House bill received unanimous support in three committees and is now ready for a vote on the floor. The Senate bill has one more committee, and members who had been worried about reputable charities now say their issues have been addressed.

“I believe that those concerns have been worked out with the bill sponsor and I’ve been assured that those concerns are no longer valid,” said Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, who was one of two senators to vote against the proposal during its first committee hearing.

State Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam started working on what has been called the most extensive rewrite of state charities laws after reading an investigation by the Tampa Bay Times and the Center for Investigative Reporting called “America’s Worst Charities.’’ His office’s responsibilities include charity oversight, and his staff has been tweaking the bill to deal with concerns as they arise.

For example, charities initially complained about a requirement that they submit audited financial statements to state regulators in order to remain in good standing. They insisted this was costly and duplicative since they already give similar information to the federal government.

The bills have since been amended to allow charities to provide the state copies of their IRS Form 990, an annual statement certain tax-exempt organizations must file. This step would make it easier for consumers to see this document.

“That should provide a lot of transparency to the public in order to get a clear picture of the organization’s finances,” said David Biemesderfer, President & CEO of the Florida Philanthropic Network.

Under the proposal, the state also would overhaul its charities website to include more detailed contact and financial information.

Nonprofits that receive more than $1 million in contributions but spend less than 25 percent of it on programming will have even more requirements. This provision is targeted at organizations like Allied Veterans of the World, the now-defunct internet cafe operator that for years justified its dealings using the state’s lax charities laws.

The measure also requires paid fund-raisers, who mostly seek donations over the telephone, to meet similar requirements as telemarketers.

And it also addresses a ubiquitous but often ignored aspect of charity: clothing receptacles in parking lots. Under the proposal, groups with these boxes would have to display a sign with contact information on the bins and clearly state if the organization is for-profit or not.

Rep. Allen Boyd, R-Bradenton, is the sponsor of House Bill 629. He said the bill should have no problem gaining the approval of the full House and Senate so it can land on Gov. Rick Scott’s desk for his signature.

“I think there is a lot of desire by the members to address the issue,” Boyd said. “I expect it to succeed.”

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, is the sponsor of the Senate version, SB 638, and said he expects it to be heard in the Appropriations committee as soon as next week.

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