AUGUSTA — A bill proposed in response to a state law that temporarily shut down Augusta’s Red Barn restaurant after a series of fundraisers earned the support of the attorney general and others Thursday.
The measure, sponsored by Rep. Lori Fowle, D-Vassalboro, would eliminate state regulation and licensing requirements for nonprofit fundraisers, unless the person raising the money is being paid.
Attorney General Janet Mills said she is “vigorously in support of this bill,” in testimony before the Legislature’s Labor, Commerce, Research, and Economic Development Committee.
“When the Red Barn incident came to my attention, and I met with the owner and saw the plight she was in, and I saw the good work her business does, I thought something must be wrong with the law if someone in my department thinks there is a violation here,” Mills said
The Red Barn has raised $635,000 for local people in need and nonprofit organizations over the last five years. That is something that should be encouraged, not directed to halt, Mills said.
A letter from Mills’ office — received by Red Barn owner Laura Benedict the day before Thanksgiving, as she was helping to prepare a free community Thanksgiving Dinner that fed some 600 people — raised the issue that forced the restaurant to stop hosting its regular Monday night fundraisers.
The letter, from Assistant Attorney General Michael Miller said that state law requires “most entities that are soliciting contributions from the public for a charitable purpose to be licensed with the Office of Professional and Occupational Regulation.”
It went on to direct the restaurant to “cease engaging in solicitation as a charitable organization until you become licensed as a charitable organization or show why you do not need to be licensed as such.”
Fowle’s bill would amend the state’s Charitable Solicitations Act to limit its application to only professional fund raisers, who solicit funds from the public on behalf of a charitable organization for money or other remuneration. The bill would exclude from regulation people, businesses, and organizations soliciting donations without getting paid to do so.
In response to the letter from the attorney general’s office, Red Barn created the Red Barn Cares Foundation, a fundraising arm of the restaurant.
Roger Pomerleau, a local businessman and member of the foundation, told lawmakers that the Red Barn did not receive money from its fundraising, was not reimbursed for the cost of the food it served and gave all the proceeds to the person or organization for which funds were being raised.
“(Red Barn owner Benedict) donates all the food, then matches that with her own money besides,” Pomerleau said. “She gives 100 percent (to the beneficiary of each fundraiser).”
Pomerleau said the Red Barn Cares Foundation hopes to hold sessions with other small businesses across the state, teaching them how to hold fundraisers to benefit people and organizations in their communities, while indirectly also benefiting their businesses with positive word of mouth and good public relations.
“This is for any business in Maine,” Pomerleau said of the proposed law change, which faced no opposition at the public hearing. “This bill could help raise many millions of dollars, for schools, for people with medical bills, for community organizations. If Laura, one business, can do $635,000 in five years at a little chicken shack, what if we train 100 businesses to do this? That’s what we want to do. Getting this bill passed is an important first step.”
A work session on the bill is scheduled for March 11.
Benedict, owner of the Red Barn, was returning from vacation Thursday and unable to make it to the public hearing.
Keith Edwards can be contacted at 621-5647, or at: