How to Form a State or Local Taxpayer Group
CHANCES ARE YOU’VE GOTTEN STEAMED over taxes at some point in your life. Probably many times. After all, this is America. Tax revolts run in our national DNA.
However, taxpayers are too often forced to pour water frantically on tax hike flare-ups. Last-minute calls-to-action are sometimes sufficient, but the limited-government movement needs a more systematic approach to stopping would-be tax hikers. State and local taxpayer groups, staffed with professionals or volunteers, can be a vital first line of defense.
Thankfully, starting up a taxpayer group in your own backyard is easier than you’d think. To help get folks started, the National Taxpayers Union (NTU) has recently released an expanded and updated version of its “Standing Together: How to Form a State or Local Taxpayer Group” publication. (Copies are available by request at www.ntu.org or by calling (703) 683-5700.)
Before covering the basics of getting a new organization up and running, we should note that there may already be a group in your area. For nearly a decade, NTU has maintained a comprehensive database of taxpayer groups from every state. On our Web site, you can find a list of over 400 state and local organizations, complete with contact information.
If there is a void of taxpayer organizing in your community and you’re interested in filling it, here are the first steps to help get you started:
● Decide on the name of your group, as well as the phone number and address of your office. You may want to use either your office or home, knowing that if a better location presents itself later, you can always change.
● Develop a mission statement that will serve as a compass for your group’s activities. It can be as simple as “The Smithville Taxpayers Association is a non-profit, non-partisan, volunteer organization dedicated to educating taxpayers, the media, and elected officials on the merits of low taxes, fiscal responsibility, and government accountability.”
● Select interim officers before your first meeting. Plenty of time will be available to decide on new officers in the future if the original selections are not fully satisfactory.
● Attract the largest possible number of taxpayers to your group. A well-organized, well-advertised meeting, open to the public, should set you on the path to accomplishing this goal.
● Find a meeting location (free community halls work well) and set a date and time. Meeting during evening or weekend hours will allow people who work during the day to get involved.
● Notify as many people as you can. Discuss taxpayer issues with friends and business people you know. Convince them of the need for a taxpayer organization and inform them of your first meeting. Use call-in radio or TV shows and any community action outlets in your area to announce the meeting. Distribute flyers at public places (like coffee shops and gas stations). Post notices on local Internet billboards.
● Write a press release explaining the purpose of your group and announcing its formation. Include the address, phone number/e-mail contact, and the time and place of the first meeting. Send this to the news editors of your local papers and TV stations.
● Make arrangements for three meetings before you hold the first one. This will eliminate some of the unnecessary and distracting uncertainties that are often experienced in setting up a new organization. Plus, it gives members a chance to plan ahead.
Your first meeting should be well-organized. Outline the purpose of your local group and have proposals for projects that members may want to start. But be careful not to scare anyone away by asking for excessive commitments. Keep the meeting to a reasonable length of time.
● Focus on pressing issues. Each community has certain tax issues that are in the forefront of debate, such as bond referendums and property tax rates. Know what these are. People will take a strong interest in your organization if you are dealing with matters that directly affect them.
● Try to zero in on a single target. Presumably your group will be small at first, and for your initial effort a concerted attack on one front will be most effective. It takes manpower to diversify, so be careful not to take on too large a task. Rather, move deliberately in an organized fashion toward one goal. Your members will derive satisfaction from an early success, and your organization will earn a good reputation at the outset.
● Assign responsibility to each member. If your membership is large enough, form committees for communications, government affairs, and fundraising. If your group is small, one individual can be assigned responsibility for each of the above areas. Make sure that each member goes away from the first meeting with the feeling that he or she has something to contribute to the organization.
● Also, find out the occupations of your members; they may have special services or talents to offer. An accountant can help with keeping the books, and so on. Utilize your resources!
● Lay the groundwork for a successful program of operations. Subsequent meetings should be largely informational, consisting of progress reports and suggestions for new tasks to complete. For the most part, your work will be done outside the meetings, with each member pursuing an assigned task.
Once this initial legwork is completed, there are many ways to develop your organization into a more sophisticated tax-fighting machine:
● Create and launch your Web site. Think of it as an online resource where all types of people (prospective members, elected officials, the media, etc.) will come for information on your group. At a minimum, you’ll want to put the group’s name, mission statement, contact information, and any upcoming events on the home page. E-mailed newsletters and calls-to-action can help cut down on printing costs.
● Write a press release explaining the purpose of the organization and announcing its formation. Send the release to your state and local newspapers and to area TV and radio stations.
● Using the contributions of your first members, open a checking account in the organization’s name at a local bank. Paying for the activities of a citizen group is not always easy. However, citizen groups always get more bang for the buck because the issues are a matter of personal conviction, not just part of a nine-to-five job. In a taxpayer group, a small treasury can still do big things.
But the most important structural step you can take is to set up committees.
The communications committee is responsible for letting others know about the work the members of your chapter are doing. Tasks include coordinating letters to the editor, news releases, radio and TV shows, opinion articles, editorial board meetings, and member newsletters.
The government affairs committee has the core task of convincing key government officials to act in favor of taxpayers. This committee should set policy goals, lobby elected officials (either in person, by letter, or over the phone), organize public rallies, and give testimony. If your chapter’s manpower permits, try to have specific members volunteer to keep track of members of Congress, the governor, state legislators, and your local government officials. Creating and distributing a “rating” of officials based on votes or other public activities is one way to promote taxpayer issues; reviewing how well candidates keep their campaign pledges in office is another.
The fundraising committee is responsible for bringing in the resources that make other activities possible. While the first funds come from passing the hat at an organizing meeting, the second source is dues-paying memberships. The committee should also focus on developing relationships with high-dollar donors and friendly business and community interests. Special events (including annual dinners), promotional items (such as bumper stickers), and online fundraising can also help raise cash.
Consider a political action committee—carefully. Your group may be interested in endorsing pro-taxpayer candidates or working for the passage or defeat of a ballot question, such as a proposed tax hike or bond increase. Such work can be incredibly effective, and may well make your group a policy or political powerhouse in your state or local jurisdiction. However, this area is a legal minefield in many states. You absolutely must know what you are doing before you start.
Other things to remember are:
● In an age of increased legal liability and financial scrutiny of organizations, it’s smart to plan ahead and incorporate your group as a nonprofit entity with your state. The process is not as difficult as you might think, and taking the right steps when you’re starting out will save big headaches later.
● Be aware that there are different IRS designations for nonprofits that lobby (often organized as 501(c)(4)s) and nonprofits that educate (often organized as 501(c)(3)s). These labels will have important implications for the tax-deductibility of donations your association receives.
● If your taxpayer group engages in express advocacy (e.g., “vote against the sales tax hike”), be sure you follow state and local rules for lobbyist registration.
● You’re not alone. Help is available. If you remain committed to keeping the tax revolt alive in your own backyard, NTU can help you further. We can provide detailed advice on growing your organization and making it a force to be reckoned with in local politics. NTU staff can provide support and consultation on everything from publication design to ballot-measure drafting. We can also furnish pertinent statistics on taxes and spending in your own state, names and addresses of fellow activists, the latest news about the nationwide tax revolt, and much, much more.
Precisely because NTU wants to see would-be tax fighters form ranks, we’ve launched the Standing Together Grant Program to provide start-up funding to new state and local taxpayer groups. So far we’ve awarded thousands of dollars in grants to help launch nine state- and local-citizen organizations from Florida to New Hampshire and points in between. Grant recipients already have made great strides this year—from defeating tax hikes in Louisiana to gaining visibility at community events. The grant program is a continuing project, and NTU accepts applications on a rolling basis. More information, including an application, is available at www.ntu.org.
Hands-on training is also provided at the National Taxpayers Conference, which is sponsored by NTU’s research and educational affiliate and is next scheduled for June 11–13, 2009, in Washington, D.C. Since 1989, the National Taxpayers Conference has served as both a test bed and a launching pad for successful tax revolts throughout America. This one-of-a-kind event combines informative policy discussions, inspirational success stories, and practical workshops to give citizen activists the skills and confidence they need to take the fight for lower taxes and less wasteful spending to every city hall and every state capitol in the nation.
Yes, launching a successful, sustainable taxpayer group takes work. Yet there’s tremendous satisfaction—and real financial savings—to be gained from keeping your state and local tax bills low. We’re ready to help nurture your tax revolt DNA. Don’t hesitate to contact us if you’re ready to take back your neighborhood from the tax-and-spenders.
Ms. Rasmussen is Director of Government Affairs, and Mr. Sepp is Vice President for Policy and Communications, for the National Taxpayers Union, a citizen group founded in 1969 to work for lower taxes and smaller government at all levels. For further information, visit www.ntu.org.