CHICAGO - Challenging the near tripling of a registration fee for non-profit groups engaged in advocacy at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield, the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois and its chief legislative lobbyist have asked a federal court to block collection of the new, dramatically-higher fee. Under the new law, set to go into effect on January 1st, non-profits, including the ACLU of Illinois, must pay a minimum of $2000 each year to register their organization and lobbyist. For the ACLU, the cost of registering the organization and its two lobbyists increases from $1050 in 2009 to $3000 under the new law. The fee increases do not apply, however, to certain lobbying by religious organizations and the media.
The case, ACLU of Illinois v. Jesse White was filed in federal district court in Chicago today. Secretary of State Jesse White is the named defendant because his office is responsible for administering the lobbyist registration program in Illinois.
The new, dramatically increased fees for non-profits amounts to an "unlawful tax on speech" according to the complaint filed with the court. The new registration fee far exceeds the actual and reasonable amount of money needed to ensure that non-profit advocacy organizations and their lobbyists comply with all appropriate and applicable laws.
The increase also places Illinois far out of line with the fee charged by other states to regulate lobbyists and non-profit organizations. Every other state in the union charges less than $365 for non-profit organizations and their lobbyists to register, and forty-two (42) states charge $150 or less. No state has a "free speech tax rate" as high as the one to be assessed by Illinois starting the first of the year. And, the federal government does not charge any fee for registering as a lobbyist on congressional issues.
"Every dime the ACLU of Illinois spends on this unnecessarily high registration fee is a dime that we cannot spend on our advocacy," said Colleen K. Connell, executive director of the ACLU of Illinois. "Paying this tax will limit our ability to pay expenses for staff in Springfield, do online advertising to encourage support for our positions, and to work and develop support at the grassroots level. This tax does harm to our advocacy."
"Non-profit organizations should not be forced to pay a tax in order to express their views to the General Assembly when they are meeting in Springfield or engaged in legislative activities elsewhere," said Adam Schwartz, senior staff counsel with the ACLU of Illinois. "This tax simply is not justified. There is no evidence that this additional revenue is necessary to ensure compliance with the laws that cover lobbyists."
The lawsuit also challenges as unconstitutional two specific exemptions to the new onerous fee contained in the law. Certain lobbying by religious organizations and the news media are exempted from these fees. The ACLU of Illinois notes that in pursuit of its defense of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the ACLU often defends religious liberty and media freedom. Creating an exemption for religious groups and the media is an unfair favoritism than simply is not permissible under the Constitution.
"When government creates a burden on advocacy, it cannot pick and choose favorites like churches and the news media, "added Edward Feldman, a lawyer with Miller, Shakman & Beem who is assisting in the lawsuit. "Non-profit groups often appear along side the news media and religious organizations on the same issues or face off in opposition. Either way, all voices have a right to be heard without a discriminatory fee structure being applied against anyone."
"We hope the court will act quickly to keep the fee from going into effect on January 1st."