In August of last year, the portion of our 2010 IRS filing that lists our donors was illegally leaked. Donors to nonprofit organizations are supposed to remain anonymous. But someone at the IRS decided that TPPF’s donors should no longer remain confidential.

The IRS leak came soon after our organization weighed in on some high-profile national issues. The timing was highly suspect. A similar pattern was seen in the improper leak of confidential IRS donor information of several conservative organizations to the liberal group ProPublica.

Many people question the need for non-profit foundations to maintain donor confidentiality. But the origins of donor confidentiality are easy to understand. The basis of it goes to a 1958 U.S. Supreme Court ruling involving the venerable civil rights organization, the NAACP, and its right to protect its donors from harassment and retaliation.

What do these events have to do with Texas, SB 219, SB 346, and free speech? 

SB 219 and SB 346 require the disclosure of donors to independent political groups in Texas-but pointedly exempt labor unions from the same requirement.

Because the Texas Public Policy Foundation doesn’t get involved in individual campaigns, we don’t believe we’d be affected by the proposed law. However, legal staff has cautioned that the law is so broadly written, it is impossible to determine exactly how far it would reach. For that reason, we continue to have great concerns about the bill. 

SB 219 and SB 346 threaten Texas’ many Tea Party groups in a fashion after the IRS’ own unseemly behavior-acting to dampen unbridled political free speech by increasing the paperwork burden on grassroots organizations as well as forcing the public disclosure of donors.  

In addition to sharing much of SB 346’s intent, SB 219 is a Sunset Review of the Texas Ethics Commission. As with many Texas Sunset bills, it really doesn’t sunset anything, rather, SB 219 makes certain changes to the Ethics Commission process.

SB 219, as written, has one good change to recommend it: “sworn complaints” will now instead be referred to as “inquiries.” This should lessen the election-time shenanigan of one candidate’s camp filing bogus ethics charges against another just so the charges can be trumpeted as an official “sworn complaint.” 

On the negative side, the bill takes away the accused chance at having a jury decide the matter while allowing only two members of the Ethics Commission to hear inquiries during the first step of the process. This increases the likelihood of the Ethics Commission being used during campaign season in what can amount to government interference in political free speech-an action not unrelated to the IRS’ attempt to muzzle TPPF, America’s largest state-level free market think tank. 

The U.S. Supreme Court has frequently observed that forcing organizations to identify their donors can violate their constitutional rights and subject the donors to harassment or retaliation. Free speech is a fundamental component of American liberty and, as such, is of a higher order than enabling some in the political sphere to settle accounts after being held to account for a controversial vote. 

America has a long tradition of anonymous political speech, with the Federalist Papers being among the most prominent. This is why the Wall Street Journal editorialized on Tuesday that a veto of SB 346 “…should [be] an easy call for a Governor who claims to dislike the self-interested ways of President Obama’s Washington.”