As criticism of the Securities and Exchange Commission's dawdling with its charge from Congress to implement crowdfunding through the federal JOBS Act grows to a chorus, there's now criticism emerging that the agency is seeking to disrupt the process for states like Washington that are creating intrastate crowdfunding.
The SEC critics, with increasing plausibility, contend that the agency has done its best to ensure that the federal JOBS Act won't come about as Congress intended.
And now that some states have given up waiting for SEC action, it seems that the federal agency is trying to put roadblocks in the way of frustrated state legislatures that have sought to find ways to have crowdfunding for startups work at the state level through selling shares to large numbers of people, typically via the Internet.
Washington is one of a dozen states that have decided nothing meaningful will come out of SEC machinations, prompting the Legislature last spring, after a year of preparation, to pass a bill that will permit entrepreneurs who are state residents to raise up to $1 million a year in small amounts from in-state investors.
The Legislature gave the State Department of Financial Institutions (DFI) until October 1 to put in place the rules and the process under which crowdfunding can be carried out and Bill Beatty, Director of Securities for DFI, says the agency "remains on track" to meet that deadline.
The department will have a hearing Thursday on the proposed rules and "will proceed to adopt the rules shortly after that unless we determine we need to make significant changes to the rules as currently proposed," Beatty said.
Joe Wallin, an attorney for Seattle-based law firm Davis Wright, predicts that entrepreneurs who are state residents will be able to begin selling shares to large numbers of Washington resident by the end of the year.
The legislation in this state and others was in reaction to what has transpired, or failed to transpire, at the federal level after Congress,
with an election-year flourish in the spring of 2012, passed the so-called JOBS Act, officially the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act.
Then Congress turned it over to the SEC to enact rules to implement the law and gave the agency 180 days to put together the process for how entrepreneurs could fund their start-up companies, primarily via the internet, by selling equity to large numbers of average investors.
It soon became obvious to all but the most myopic, with one delay following another, that SEC Chairman Mary Schapiro had little interest in seeing the law come about, possibly because she was more concerned about protecting average investors than following the law's guidance toward funding entrepreneurs.
Now the SEC has a new chairman but there is a growing sense that the details of compliance, if and when the SEC finally acts, will be so onerous on entrepreneurs that the costs of starting to raise capital on the Internet will deter many if not most would-be entrepreneurs. Indeed the latest deadline for the rules to be established has passed and the regulators have not provided a new timeframe, now almost two years after the launch date Congress intended.
And now there is also a sense on the part of many crowdfunding supporters, including Wallin, that Congress, unless it has lost interest, may have to intervene to keep the SEC from removing or changing a number of securities rules that stand to burden in-state entrepreneurs who hope to raise funds in their states to launch businesses.
Wallin, who proposed the wording of the original state legislation and whose blog is viewed by many as the final word on what's happening with federal as well as state crowdfunding, worries that the SEC is trying to make it harder for states to do what Congress intended the federal government to do.
An example is in the fact that the state laws are not subject to the federal crowdfunding law because the companies raising the money are incorporated in those states and raising money solely from investors in those states. Congress created that specific exemption from federal law for intrastate offerings when it enacted the Securities Act of 1933.
However, the SEC has recently issued interpretive guidance on the intrastate exemption that says that if the company uses the internet to promote or discuss its offering then the offering is not an intrastate offering even if a company is incorporated in a particular state and all investors are in that state.
"This is nonsense and it needs to be corrected," says Wallin, who is seeking to stir an outcry from start-up supporters to demand that Congress get involved. "It's nearly impossible not
to use the internet to communicate any fundraising or community organizing event that involves these start-up businesses."
"Section 201 of the JOBS Act was a big help to entrepreneurs in that it allowed startups to talk publicly about their efforts to raise money, a process known as General Solicitation," Wallin notes."Unfortunately, the SEC put rules in place that discourage most companies from taking advantage of this new opportunity and Congress needs to restore the intent of its own legislation."
Wallin offers the following suggestion that can be forwarded to members of Congress by those seeking to use the Internet for crowdfunding of their startup:
"Please either pass a simple piece of legislation to fix this or direct the SEC to clarify or fix its intrastate crowdfunding decisions. Otherwise, by prohibiting the use of the internet in intrastate crowdfunding, the SEC is tamping down a nascent but important opportunity to cultivate local funding and entrepreneurship ecosystems before they even have an opportunity to develop."
It may well be time, in these final weeks of an election season in which most members of Congress are on the November ballot, to send a message that indifference and ineptitude on the issues of innovation and job creation won't be taken well by those who understand the role entrepreneurs play in economic health.