Proposed legislation stuns Minnesota’s non-profits

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Every gathering of the Legislature has its share of goofy bills, but this one is a real head-scratcher.

State Sen. Scott Newman, a Republican from Hutchinson, has proposed legislation that would likely ban almost all state grants from going to nonprofit organizations. Officials from Minnesota’s nonprofits are trying to figure out what he could be thinking. And so am I.

What gives? Newman isn’t talking. (More on that later.)

But his idea has got others talking. One lawyer for nonprofits told me the bill, if enacted into law, would shut down hospitals all over the state.

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“It’s so terribly broad. You can certainly read it [that it] would close down every non-profit hospital in the state,” volunteers Tom Johnson, an attorney with Gray Plant Mooty who represents nonprofits.  

On the face of it, the proposed law, of which Newman is sole author and at last check had no companion bill in the House, would “make it difficult for nonprofits to have much of a field left in which to operate,” says Johnson, former Hennepin County attorney.   

Just as puzzled, but perhaps more diplomatic, is Susie Brown, public policy director for the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits. “We’re very interested in learning what the problem is he is trying to resolve with this piece of legislation,” she admits. She, too, is reaching out to talk with Newman about his bill.

Banning state money from going to nonprofits would be a big deal. Keep in mind, as Brown explains, nonprofits are often the delivery mechanism in communities for carrying out budget and policy choices of the state. Plus, government grants are a really significant resource for many nonprofits, she said.

The 2,000 nonprofit members of the organization deliver a wide spectrum of services in areas such as health, housing, food, employment, legal and civil rights advocacy, education, volunteerism and other human services.

So what’s the intent of this legislation? Maybe you can figure it out.

Here’s Senate File 1096, called Grants to Nonprofits Prohibited in Certain Situations:

“No person, corporation or entity doing business as a nonprofit entity shall receive public funding to provide goods or services if the same or similar goods or services can be provided by a state agency or a private for-profit business entity.”

What’s Newman’s side of the story? I can’t seem to get a response from him – and that could stem in part from another snafu.

Remember the new state senator whose staff last January emailed the Minnesota Nurses Association to say that the senator had a policy of not meeting with groups that had supported his opponent? Well, Newman is that senator.

Newman initially stonewalled a media clamoring for explanations, later denied the existence of such a policy and then blamed the mistake on a staffer. The incident resulted in an ethics complaint against him, which was dismissed by a bipartisan Senate panel.

You have to wonder: Is this more stonewalling?

I started trying to contact him Thursday with phone calls and email messages.  

I asked for five minutes of his time. His staff said Thursday his day was heavily scheduled. They told me Friday he had headed home to meet with his constituents.

Does he have a cell phone, I asked.

He’s been given the message you called, I was told, and was referred to the Republican media contact.

By Friday, Chris Van Guilder, the media’s conduit to GOP senators, called back to say he had “not been able to contact or hear back from Senator Newman.”

“I’ll let you know as soon as I know more,” Van Guilder told me in a voice messge.

Haven’t heard back.