Why Are Georgians Bankrolling a South Carolina Referendum?

October 7, 2014

Inside Insight

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By DEBBIE NIX

polling stationWHO IS THIS ‘COMMUNITY FOUNDATION,’ ANYWAY?

A few days ago, our organization – the We the People Aiken Care Committee – discovered a flyer that had been emailed from our local daily newspaper, the Aiken Standard, to their customers. The paper was soliciting advertisement space, and suggesting that readers buy ads promoting a “yes” vote in the November 4 referendum to raise the sales tax. As if weren’t bad enough, the Standard said it would contribute 10 percent of the costs of the ad to a group that’s also promoting a “yes” vote.

When we called the paper out for this flagrant violation of journalistic fairness – the paper wasn’t just editorializing in favor of the sales tax hike, it was financially contributing to the cause – the editors issued a roundabout apology for the “error.”

“It is the Aiken Standard’s policy to donate 10 percent of a section promoting a non-profit back to that organization,” the paper’s Audience Development Director (?) wrote. “We would do that with organizations such as the United Way, SPCA, etc. The advertising employee got confused when she saw that the organization was a (non-profit) and thought those same rules applied, which of course they would not due to the political nature of the organization.”

Hold on. What kind of “nonprofit” group engages in electioneering?

A quick Google search revealed that the “nonprofit” in question – the One Cent Makes Sense campaign – isn’t even located in South Carolina. It’s in Augusta, Georgia. The campaign’s website has lots of material about the vote it’s promoting, but virtually nothing about itself. If you look long enough, though, you find – in tiny letters at the bottom of its “contribute” page – that it’s run by the Community Foundation for the Central Savannah River Area, a 501(c)(3) organization.

So – can a 501(c)(3) engage in this kind of electioneering? In some cases it can. The IRS says a 501(c)(3) “may make a contribution to a ballot measure committee (committees supporting or opposing ballot initiatives or referenda), but it must include such contributions in its lobbying calculations for purposes of determining whether a substantial part of its activities consist of attempting to influence legislation.”

The Community Foundation, then, will have to declare what it spent on the One Cent Makes Sense campaign on its IRS 990 form, but that won’t be available until next year. The group’s 2013 990 form, available here, indicates that it has a roughly $10 million budget, and that it pays out a large proportion of its budget to other nonprofit groups. Its website, furthermore, indicates that only one of its 23 board members is from South Carolina.

So leave aside the Aiken Standard’s incompetence and/or disingenuousness. The real questions here are these. Why is a Georgia-based nonprofit organization so interested in getting South Carolinians to increase their sales tax for the purpose of capital improvements to South Carolina schools? And what South Carolinians – assuming there are any – are funding the Community Foundation for the Central Savannah River Area for the purpose of promoting the “yes” vote in Aiken County? Is the Community Foundation simply a vehicle through which the “yes” vote can receive truckloads of funding and maintain the donors’ anonymity?

And finally – is the mainstream media in our area even curious about the answers?

Debbie Nix, a longtime resident of Aiken, South Carolina, owns a plumbing, electrical, and heating/air business.