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Donors To Politically Sensitive Groups Protected By Privacy Bill

Personal info on contributors to nonprofits would not be posted on government databases

A bill shielding contributors to nonprofit organizations from having their personal information and contribution amounts handed over to government agencies was advanced by a state Senate committee Wednesday. The measure could come before the full Senate at any time during the current legislative session, which ends Dec. 31.

Senate Bill 1176 passed the committee on a party line vote. It would prohibit state and local government agencies from requiring nonprofit organizations to turn over their contributor lists, including personal information on members, supporters, volunteers or donors. This would not apply if an agency obtained a court-ordered warrant for the information.

The bill also prohibits governments from requiring their contractors to disclose their financial or other support to nonprofits. Government agencies that already have or later acquire a nonprofit’s donor data would have to get permission from the organization and every individual contributor before the information could be released. Anyone who knowingly violated this provision would be subject to criminal misdemeanor penalties, and civil damages of up to $2,500 are also authorized.

Zac Morgan, an attorney with the Institute for Free Speech, testified on behalf of the bill and said it will protect “privacy in association.”

"SB 1176 will preserve privacy in association, a fundamental right that the Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed is held by all Americans and is essential to civil society,” Morgan said in an emailed statement. “Importantly, it will bar public agencies from acting alone to undermine that vital freedom, as has happened in states like California and New York."

An issue brief from the institute cites the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1957 landmark ruling on this issue, which denied the state of Alabama’s demand that the NAACP turn over the names of its contributors.

David Guenthner, the head of government affairs at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, also was supportive of the bill. “SB 1176 writes into Michigan law the long-standing practices for privacy of donors and supporters of nonprofit organizations,” he said.

Craig Mauger, director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, testified against the bill. He said he believes that not all types of nonprofits should receive the same donor-disclosure protections.

“My argument on this bill is that it treats donations to food banks and churches the same way as it treats donations to a nonprofit connected to a public office holder. They could have tailored this bill to protect charitable organizations.” Mauger said. “Protecting the privacy of charitable organizations, 501(c)3s, I get that; protecting the privacy of what are basically political PACS, I don’t get that.”

Michigan Capitol Confidential’s parent organization is the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, which is a 501(c)(3) organization that supports the bill.