(CN) - The American Civil Liberties Union filed a class action against Illinois in Chicago Federal Court to block the tripling of lobbying fees in the state. The ACLU claims the fee hike an unconstitutional tax on speech that threatens to chill the advocacy of nonprofit groups.
The ACLU wants the new fees, slated to take effect Jan. 1, declared unconstitutional, and wants nonprofits exempted from paying any fee at all.
In the alternative, the ACLU seeks exemptions from the portion of the lobbying fee that will be directed to the Illinois General Revenue Fund after Jan. 1, and any part of the remaining fee that exceed the amount that defendant Jesse White, Illinois secretary of state, can prove he needs to administer the state's lobbying act.
The ACLU also claims that fee waivers for the media and religious groups are illegal, speaker-based discrimination.
The action arises out of an August amendment to the state's lobbying act, which will increase the annual fee most lobbyists pay from $350 to $1,000. The fee will be even stiffer for a nonprofit, which must pay a $1,000 organizational fee and an additional $1,000 for each of its lobbyist-employees.
The ACLU paid $1,050 to register itself and two employees in 2009. Under the revised scheme, its lobbyist registration costs would rise to $3,000 annually.
"Every dollar that the ACLU spends on the registration fee required by the amended Act is a dollar diverted from what the ACLU can pay for legislative and executive advocacy and its other activities," the complaint states.
Adam Schwartz, senior staff counsel with the ACLU in Illinois, said in a statement, "Nonprofit 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.
"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 ACLU claims that no other state charges more than $365 for nonprofit organizations and their lobbyists to register, and 42 states charge $150 or less. In addition, it notes that the federal government does not charge a fee for registering as a lobbyist on congressional issues.
As of September, there were 1,709 lobbyists for organizations and 1,925 individual lobbyists registered in Illinois, according to the Secretary of State's Web site. More than 100 of the organizations are nonprofits, and more than 100 of the individuals are employees of nonprofits, the ACLU said.
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