2013 General AssemblyArkansas LegislatureMedicaidObamacare

How Nonprofits Work

Ed Haislmaier speaking to a packed house at AAI's Conway forum last night.
Ed Haislmaier speaking to a packed house at AAI’s Conway forum last night.

It was a pleasure to bring Christie Herrera and Ed Haislmaier to Arkansas in order to speak on what several lawmakers have called the “private option” – namely, an Arkansas spin on Medicaid expansion. But I was disappointed to see Senator Jason Rapert’s tweet yesterday, in which he explained that one of our speakers said “he has not read the AR private option bill while speaking against it today.” Rapert got that wrong, and it may be useful to explain why.

Both of our speakers had read the bill, although only Herrera had read the latest version of it.  Furthermore, neither of our speakers were speaking against the private option bill. Representatives of nonprofit groups are not supposed to endorse or condemn bills. Instead, they express opinions on the general policies that bills implicate. When nonprofit groups endorse or condemn bills as such, they run the risk of violating federal law and endangering their nonprofit status.

Rapert’s statement obscured much more than it clarified. His tweet triggered cries of synthetic outrage from several state legislators and two journalists, one of whom (Jason Tolbert) insisted that distinguishing between a policy and a bill was a “distinction without a difference.” I’d disagree; Tolbert seemed to have a pretty good grasp on the limits of nonprofit advocacy last week, and it’s too bad that he seems to have forgotten about all that stuff so rapidly.

More generally, I don’t think any serious person believes that we’re somehow not allowed to have opinions on any public policy proposal unless we’re up to speed on all the latest amendments to the relevant bills. There were plenty of people who opined on the private option long before the bill was introduced last week, and the idea that it’s improper to talk about public policy unless you’ve read all of the amendments to the legislation which would establish it is a very strange notion.

I appreciate Senator Rapert’s service in the legislature, and I appreciate his presence at the town hall forum that AAI sponsored in Conway. By the end of that forum, it appeared to me that the experts we brought in to speak and the legislators who were there as guests were approaching agreement on some fundamental Medicaid issues. If that is true – and I hope and believe it is – the forum was a great success. As for me, I am reminded that it’s probably better for friends who have differences with each other to work them out over coffee than it is to tweet at everyone in the universe over the vertiginous vacuum of cyberspace.

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