On any given day in the Capitol, you might see someone from the Idaho Freedom Foundation huddling with like-minded conservative lawmakers, maybe working on a bill that advances the group’s advocacy of limited government, free markets and states’ rights.
On the same day, you might see someone from the foundation testifying before a committee, wearing the green name badge that identifies him as a lobbyist.
Still on the same day, in another committee room, will be another IFFer observing proceedings and wearing the brown name badge assigned to reporters.
The foundation sees no conflict in mixing those roles, affirming that in each case it operates within permitted bounds. But it has critics throughout the Capitol. Even legislators who claim the same broad political stripe object to their methods.
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Last week, Rep. Kelley Packer, a second-term Republican from McCammon in Bannock County, tore into the foundation in her weekly Internet broadcast on legislative issues (at the 6:15 mark). Packer is a former GOP county committee chair. Several years ago in that capacity, and eager to embrace a then-new conservative voice, she invited foundation President Wayne Hoffman to address the group. She soured quickly on their methods.
“I don’t know that they’re necessarily an honest, conservative voice,” Packer says in her podcast. “There’s just a lot of ironies and hypocrisies that I see in place.”
Among its advocacy efforts, the foundation grades bills based on how they comport with its agenda. Their “Freedom Index” ratings are later applied to lawmakers on the basis of how they vote.
The most conservative lawmakers typically have the highest scores, but not always. Packer said the ratings can arbitrarily punish lawmakers who, for example, support a revenue bill in the interest of good government. A Democrat who, in the same instance, votes against the bill because it doesn’t raise enough revenue can end up scoring better. She recalled the irony last year when her end-of-session IFF ranking was below that of Rep. John McCrostie, D-Garden City, and he teased her about it.
“How does it feel to be ranked lower than a gay Democrat?” Packer recalled him joking.
WRONG MEASURE OF LEGISLATION
When she took office in 2012, Packer told the IFF to stop sending her its weekly rankings.
“I don’t care if you send me your positions on bills,” she said, “but don’t share with me what you think that bill is worth because I’m not going to vote to try to hit a certain score on your index. I just think it’s downright wrong.”
Other lawmakers, she said, sweat their votes based on how it will affect their ranking.
“You’ve got people on the floor that actively watch (the index) to see where their score’s at,” she said. “I think we’re looking at legislation the wrong way if we’re looking through those lenses.”
Packer doesn’t mince words. She calls it bullying. Hoffman strongly objects.
The foundation works to “evaluate all legislation that has some kind of free market intersection, and people rely on that analysis,” said Hoffman, a former Statesman reporter. Some review the information, agree and vote accordingly. “And then we have friends also who frankly for whatever reason choose to go a different route on occasion. And that’s OK.”
Packer noted other objections from IFF critics. For one, the organization vigorously advocates for transparency, but when asked by reporters where its money comes from, won’t identify its contributors. “I’m an advocate of government transparency. I’m not working for the government,” Hoffman said.
Liberal advocacy groups, he said, don’t weather the same scrutiny.
Hoffman said “99 percent” of the foundation’s funding comes from inside Idaho, from “individuals who believe in our organization and the work that we to do.” Its positions aren’t dictated by donors, he said. “We work on policies that support free market, limited government principles, and our supporters gravitate to that.”
A CHARITABLE TAX WRITE-OFF
IFF is a registered 501(c)(3) charity, which means donations are tax-deductible. Packer says in her podcast that the IFF, as a charity, can’t lobby, but that’s not exactly right. Federal law allows a sliding-scale portion of a charity’s expenditures to go toward lobbying. In 2014, for example, IFF reported $731,000 in expenditures. Under the law, it could have spent nearly $136,000 on lobbying. With three employees registered as lobbyists, it reported spending less than $16,000.
Its tax status and activities have come up before. After Packer’s podcast, IFF emailed to say her statements on their lobbying “misrepresent the law and make inappropriate and inaccurate claims.” Packer challenged back.
“Can you honestly tell me that the IFF does not devote the majority of their time to lobbying, when you and your representatives are in the Capitol daily? ... I think you are clearly abusing those limits,” she replied.
Packer said her podcast critique was a pre-emptive strike. Like a school report card, IFF’s mailed fliers have started going out reporting how lawmakers are voting. She expects to be castigated in one, despite her current Freedom Index ranking that has her comfortably in the top third.
Hoffman defends those activities as “informational.” In 2013, when IFF put up billboards naming lawmakers who voted to create the state health exchange, the message wasn’t “vote them out” but “repeal the law,” he said. The signs were down before the 2014 elections.
Because of the foundation’s lobbying and advocacy activities, people who write for IdahoReporter.com, its news site, aren’t accredited as official Capitol reporters. Lobbyists are barred from the House and Senate floors during session, while reporters have full access. The foundation’s writers wear brown reporter name badges anyway. Hoffman defends the move because he says they are working as journalists, accredited or not.
“There’s a lot of different nuances to what we do, and it all comes together in all the different facets that you see up there,” he said.
Hoffman said Packer “talks about how conservative she is, but her record betrays her.”
“This is how government accountability works,” he said. Packer and other legislators “need to remember that they’re in the public spotlight, and if they’re not used to that, then they probably need to grow a thicker skin or get a different job.”
Expanding its influence
The Idaho Freedom Foundation in September spun off a related organization that is financing activities such as direct mailing. Idaho Freedom Action is a 501 (c)(4) “social welfare” organization for tax purposes. Such groups are the so-called dark money organizations that include Citizens United and, at the other end of the spectrum, the League of Conservation Voters. Hoffman said the group’s mission is to promote greater civic engagement in government. Its Facebook page lists a website that routes to a donation page.