HOUSE SPEAKER RON MARIANO recently announced that he was asking the House Rules Committee to take a look at the rules around “unregistered, or vaguely-affiliated, advocates and coalitions.”

Mariano’s pronouncement created confusion – and some concern – among public policy advocates. But it has also highlighted the complex nature of lobbying on Beacon Hill, with an assortment of coalitions, nonprofits, lobbyists, and members of the public all making their voices heard, under often confusing regulations.

Secretary of the Commonwealth Bill Galvin said there has been an uptick in recent years in instances where groups have come together to lobby as a coalition – but the coalition does not exist as a legal entity and is not registering with Galvin’s lobbying division. “We’ve gone round and round on a number of groups and had to negotiate disclosure,” Galvin said.

Mariano wrote in his email to members that “the parameters for how to work with these opaque coalitions are ill-defined and can create a lack of clarity.” He said he is asking the Rules Committee to “develop a set of best practices for engaging with these groups” so that lawmakers and staff are “readily aware of who they are meeting with, which external groups comprise a coalition, and how those groups are funded.”

Asked for clarification on who Mariano was talking about and how he might regulate the groups, Mariano spokesperson Joe Masciangioli said “the Rules Committee will gain a better sense of those solutions and which groups will be impacted once it completes its study.”

Many speculate that Mariano was referring to Act on Mass – a group that is pushing for increased State House transparency – and the Mass Fiscal Alliance, a fiscally conservative group, both of which are nonprofits and neither of which have to disclose their donors.

Matt Miller, co-founder of Act on Mass, said his group is a nonprofit funded by labor unions and private donations with a “tiny” budget. He called it “shocking” that Mariano is trying “to put the focus on a really small grassroots organization as if we’re doing something shady” when the group is asking for modest reforms to make the legislative process more transparent.

The Mass Fiscal Alliance is a 501c4, a “social welfare” nonprofit that is not required to disclose donors, but it has faced scrutiny over whether it should be classified as a political committee and subject to donor disclosure laws. In 2016, the Office of Campaign and Political Finance found that Mass Fiscal Alliance is not a political committee but did violate the law by failing to disclose who donated money to buy door hangers and handbills during a Fitchburg special election. Mass Fiscal’s campaign activity, primarily mailers attacking candidates the group dislikes, has particularly angered Democrats on Beacon Hill.

Paul Craney, a spokesman for Mass Fiscal Alliance, said he thinks Mariano is trying to “consolidate more power” by setting up new regulations for how the public can interact with members. “Anytime you put up any kind roadblock like that, it’s a bad thing,” Craney said. “Rank and file lawmakers should determine on their own how they communicate with the general public.”

Craney said the tax rules that do not require nonprofits to disclose their donors stem from the civil rights era, when segregationists wanted to know who was supporting the civil rights movement.  “For decades, everyone agreed, including liberals, that there was a value in making sure nonprofits had some kind of protection of freedom of speech and association among their members,” Craney said. He said his organization has received death threats, and there is a danger of harassment if donors are disclosed.

Pam Wilmot, vice president of state operations for the national good government group Common Cause, who previously led Common Cause in Massachusetts, said it is hard to know what Mariano is referring to. State law requires groups to disclose their donors if they are involved in elections, through ballot questions or candidates. Lobbyists must disclose their clients and payments in filings with the Secretary of State’s office. And courts have ruled – most notably in a landmark 1958 US Supreme Court case involving the Alabama NAACP – that nonprofit groups do not have to disclose their donors if they are not conducting election-related political activity.

Wilmot noted that state lobbying laws are in place to serve public transparency, not legislators’ convenience. If lawmakers try to impose additional rules, she said, “You can go overboard and run into First Amendment problems and into harassment problems for no additional real public benefit.”

One problem Galvin has flagged is groups uniting to advocate for a bill as a coalition, which is not organized as a legal entity and does not register its lobbying. For example, a coalition might use a lobbyist employed by a union, and the lobbyist does not disclose the coalition as their client. Or a coalition might advocate in a way that does not involve a paid staffer meeting directly with a lawmaker.

State lobbying laws require registration of anyone who is paid at least $2,500 and spends at least 25 hours lobbying over a six-month period. Lobbying under state law covers a broad range of political activities intended to influence legislation.

Galvin spokesperson Deb O’Malley said most of these cases have been resolved through discussions, with the coalition either registering or deciding to stop lobbying. Some negotiations are ongoing, she said.

Anecdotally, groups take varied approaches to lobbying. Raise Up Massachusetts, a ballot committee that advocates primarily for workers rights’ issues, uses registered lobbyists who work for its member organizations. Those members report the lobbying as in-kind contributions.

Some advocates may hold events at the State House, but believe they do not have to register because their activities are not lobbying. Lisa Guisbond is president of Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance and executive director of Citizens for Public Schools, both groups that advocate for public school funding. She said she did not register as a lobbyist because she personally does not lobby lawmakers – her focus is on educating the groups’ members and urging them to be informed and talk to lawmakers.

Zac Bears, former director of the higher education advocacy organization PHENOM, said similarly that while he has held events at the State House and connected constituents with lawmakers, he rarely meets directly with lawmakers. Bears said he is unclear what Mariano is considering, but “it seems a little self-defeating to me to try to not have lawmakers connecting with different residents and constituents and voters to talk about issues.”

The discussion is also reviving long-standing debates about transparency in the controversial world of education policy. On one side are several union-funded groups, which tend to advocate for more public school funding. On the other side are foundation-funded groups that tend to push for reforming public schools and providing educational choice. Organizations on both sides have faced questions about paperwork compliance and donor disclosure.

Mo Cunningham, a political science professor at UMass Boston and co-founder of the MassPoliticsProfs blog, who belongs to the Massachusetts Teachers Association, has long led the charge to scrutinize the funding behind foundation-backed groups, particularly Massachusetts Parents United, an urban parent organization focused on improving schools.

“They want to call themselves a bunch of scrappy moms who started in a library, then lo and behold the Waltons want to dump $1.5 million on it,” Cunningham said, referring to the family who started Walmart. “You won’t find an inch of difference between their policy priorities and those of their funders, an out-of-state family that is the richest in the country.”

Like her financial supporters or not, Keri Rodrigues, founder of Massachusetts Parents United, said she is transparent about where the organization gets its funding. She publishes the identity of donors on the organization’s website, and its tax forms are public. Massachusetts Parents United is funded mainly by foundations, including the Walton Family Foundation and the Boston-based Barr Foundation, both of which also fund other Massachusetts education reform groups.

Rodrigues said she gets frustrated with reporters and advocates referring to her organization as “Walton-funded” when the other side is not described as “union-funded.” “I’m more transparent than I need to be about who we are, how we’re funded,” Rodrigues said. “Nobody else on the other side of our advocacy fights is held to that standard….There’s a group of 10 to 15 people who all shuffle around, so it looks like all different organizations, but they’re all literally funded by teachers’ unions.”

She pointed, for example, to the nonprofit Citizens for Public Schools. “Are you actually citizens for public schools or are you another branch of the teachers’ union? It’s a game of smoke and mirrors,” Rodrigues said.

Paul Toner, a former Massachusetts Teachers Association president, echoes Rodrigues’ concern and said the problem is that some organizations, like Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance or Citizens for Public Schools, appear to be citizens’ groups. “They were created by the unions, in most respects they’re funded by the unions, they’re used to reinforce the messaging of the unions. I think the problem people have had with them is that’s not very apparent,” Toner said.

But representatives of the union-backed groups say there is a reason for the different groups, which have different purposes but sometimes share common goals. For example, PHENOM, Jobs With Justice, and Fair Test have some overlap with one another and with the unions when it comes to staff or directors. But PHENOM focuses on higher education, Jobs With Justice on workers’ rights, and Fair Test is a national group critical of standardized testing.

Bears, the former PHENOM director, who sits on the board of Jobs with Justice and was an officer at the Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance, said some of the groups share staff or officers. But, he said, “It’s not some secret network of education organizations as much as a public coalition of education organizations who have come together to advance policy goals.”

Guisbond said Citizens for Public Schools started in 1982 to oppose an initiative that would have let public education funds go to private schools. It morphed into a 501c3 membership organization focused on protecting public schools.

Guisbond said Citizens for Public Schools “is certainly registered with the state and we are transparent about who we are and who supports us.” The organization’s directors, which include leaders of the state’s teachers’ unions, and its revenue are public in state and tax filings. Its “allied organizations,” though not specifically donors, are listed on its website. A 501c3 is a charity with more restrictions on political activity than a 501c4, although both types of nonprofits are tax exempt and do not have to disclose donors.

The Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance is a coalition of parents, students, educators, and organizers that was founded to oppose a 2016 ballot question to expand charter schools, and is now focused on increasing public school funding. It had been a 501c4, a nonprofit “social welfare” organization, but the Internal Revenue Service stripped it of its tax exemption because of its failure to file required tax documents for three years. It has also not filed annual reports with the attorney general’s office.

MEJA has since changed its treasurer from Juan Cofield, the president of the New England Area Conference NAACP, to Beth Kontos, president of American Federation of Teachers – Massachusetts. Kontos said the organization filed the necessary tax forms and is waiting for an IRS response. Asked about filings with the attorney general’s office, spokesperson Steve Crawford said, “Our new leadership is working through the process of ensuring that the organization is in full compliance as a non-profit.”

Although nonprofits do not have to disclose their donors, Kontos said MEJA is funded by teachers’ unions, foundations, and private donations. Member groups include the state’s teachers’ unions and organizations like PHENOM, Jobs With Justice, and Citizens for Public Schools.

MEJA is not the only organization to have had compliance issues. Rodrigues, of Massachusetts Parents United, was previously the state director of Families for Excellent Schools, a national organization advocating for the 2016 ballot question to expand access to charter schools. Families for Excellent Schools was fined by the Office of Campaign and Political Finance for hiding the identity of donors. Rodrigues said she ran the organization’s 501c3 and was not connected to the 501c4, which was fined.

Representatives of several of these organizations say they are unsure who the House Rules Committee will be looking at. Guisbond said it “seems odd” that a debate about legislative transparency turned into an attempt to scrutinize advocacy groups.

Kontos said the right to free association allows people to communicate about issues, and she hopes lawmakers will continue to respond to constituents. “What needs to happen in a democracy in general is we have to have more interaction between the average citizen and the legislators, not less,” she said.