Learn more about how the State Policy Network aids ALEC and spins disinformation in the states.
In this online resource, the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD, the publisher of the award-winning ALECexposed.org investigation) documents the more than $83 million that right-wing billionaires and corporations are spending each year to fuel Tracie Sharp’s State Policy Network (SPN) and its 64 state affiliates, a web of right-wing “think tanks” in every state across the country.
Twelve new reports -- a nationally-focused report written by CMD and eleven state-focused reports written by Progress Now member groups and CMD -- released November 13, 2013 expose SPN and select state members.
Although SPN's member organizations claim to be nonpartisan and independent, an in-depth investigation reveals that SPN and its member think tanks are major drivers of the right-wing, American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)-backed corporate agenda in state houses nationwide, with deep ties to the Koch brothers and the national right-wing network of funders. The reports reveal some members abusing tax laws and masquerading as "think tanks" while really orchestrating extensive lobbying and political operations to peddle their legislative agenda to state legislators, all while reporting little or no lobbying activities.
CMD's investigation uncloaks some of the major funders of these expanding operations in the states and raises major concerns over whose agenda these front groups are advancing in the states. Go to StinkTanks.org (a project of Progress Now and CMD) and see below and the linked SourceWatch resources for more.
Later the same week, however, The New Yorker's Jane Mayer caught Sharp in a contradiction. In her article, "Is IKEA the New Model for the Conservative Movement?," the Pulitzer-nominated reporter revealed that, in a recent meeting behind closed doors with the heads of SPN affiliates around the country, Sharp "compared the organization’s model to that of the giant global chain IKEA." She reportedly said that SPN "would provide 'the raw materials,' along with the 'services' needed to assemble the products. Rather than acting like passive customers who buy finished products, she wanted each state group to show the enterprise and creativity needed to assemble the parts in their home states. 'Pick what you need,' she said, 'and customize it for what works best for you.'" Not only that, but Sharp "also acknowledged privately to the members that the organization's often anonymous donors frequently shape the agenda. 'The grants are driven by donor intent,' she told the gathered think-tank heads. She added that, often, 'the donors have a very specific idea of what they want to happen.'"
SPN and its affiliates push an extreme right-wing agenda that aims to privatize education, block healthcare reform, restrict workers' rights, roll back environmental protections, and create a tax system that benefits most those at the very top level of income.
Although SPN's affiliates -- like SPN -- are registered as educational nonprofits, several appear to orchestrate extensive lobbying and political operations to peddle their legislative agenda to state legislators, despite the IRS's regulations on nonprofit political and lobbying activities. See, for example, the "Featured Stink Tank" below.
While it has become an $83 million dollar right-wing empire, SPN and most of its affiliates do not post their major donors on their websites. The identities of the donors we have discovered reveal that SPN is largely funded by global corporations -- such as Reynolds American, Altria, Microsoft, AT&T, Verizon, GlaxoSmithKline, Kraft Foods, Express Scripts, Comcast, Time Warner, and the Koch- and Tea Party-connected DCI Group lobbying and PR firm -- that stand to benefit from SPN’s destructive agenda, as well as out-of-state special interests like the billionaire Koch brothers, the Waltons, the Bradley Foundation, the Roe Foundation of SPN's founder, and the Coors family -- who are underwriting an extreme legislative agenda that undermines the traditional rights of modern Americans. Corporations like Facebook and the for-profit online education company K12 Inc., as well as the e-cigarette company NJOY, also fund SPN, as demonstrated by its most recent annual meeting.
While, in 2007, the approximately $40 million in combined revenues of the then 52 think tanks in 45 states that were members was less than the Heritage Foundation's budget that year of $50 million, SPN president Tracie Sharp announced in late 2007 a plan to expand think-tank revenues by $50 million by 2012. In 2011, combined revenues of SPN itself and its (then) 59 member state think tanks was $83.2 million, according to a review of the groups' IRS forms 990 by the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD).
Please see the SourceWatch article on SPN Funding for more.
SPN and many of its affiliates are some of the most active members and largest sponsors of the controversial ALEC, where special interest groups and state politicians vote behind closed doors on "model" legislation to change Americans' rights, through ALEC's task forces. SPN has close ties to, and works with, other national right-wing organizations like the Franklin Center and David Koch's Americans for Prosperity.
All of SPN's 64 member state think tanks have pushed parts of the ALEC agenda in their respective states, and at least 34 of them have additional direct ties to ALEC (beyond SPN's own ties as an ALEC funder). SPN think tanks have introduced, echoed, pushed, and reinforced ALEC policies to hamstring labor, privatize education, disenfranchise minorities, students, and the elderly, and rollback environmental initiatives in the states.
A powerful example of how certain SPN affiliates work directly to change state law without reporting any lobbying to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) -- which requires such disclosures of direct and grassroots lobbying by 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations such as the SPN state affiliates -- is that of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy's efforts to make Michigan a "right to work" state.
On December 11, 2012, governor Rick Snyder signed into law a "right to work" bill, which undermines collective bargaining by allowing workers to freeload off the benefits of union negotiations without paying the costs of union representation. The Mackinac Center and its funders, such as the billionaire DeVos family of the Amway fortune, had been coordinating behind close doors to effect this change "for 25 years," as a Mackinac blog post boasted after the bill passed, going on to call the passage of the bill "a classic example of the Overton Window of what's politically possible moving in the proper direction. Mackinac Center experts have been pushing that window toward right-to-work since 1990."
In fact, SPN singled out the Mackinac Center's president, Joseph Lehman, for its highest award at its 2013 annual meeting, the "Roe Award" named after SPN founder and building materials supply magnate Thomas Roe. Why? For "the passage of a right-to-work law in Michigan," another blog post boasted. Betsy DeVos presented the award to Lehman, and Dick DeVos was recognized as well.
Mackinac created or helped create two new online publications -- called "Michigan Capital Confidential" and "Watchdog Wire Michigan" (a project of the Franklin Center, of which Mackinac is a "partner") -- to communicate its claims, gain public support, and put pressure on the governor to adopt its "right to work" changes to state law.
In audio released in early 2013 by Progress Michigan, Mackinac Director of Labor Policy F. Vincent Vernuccio was recorded as telling supporters at an Americans for Prosperity "Citizen Watchdog Training" that he had met with Michigan lawmakers to make a plan for ramming "right to work" laws through the state legislature. And in a series of 2011 emails between Mackinac staffers and Michigan Rep. Tom McMillin about a different piece of legislation, Mackinac's Jack McHugh told McMillin, "Our goal is outlaw government collective bargaining in Michigan, which in practical terms means no more MEA" (Michigan Education Association, the state's teachers union). In another email, McMillin told Mackinac staffers, "my ability to impact this decision could be assisted by hearing your thoughts...soon (and again, this is off the record - ok?)"
Based on these email exchanges and other evidence, U.S. Rep. Sandy Levin (D-MI) asked the IRS to investigate Mackinac and "take appropriate actions to ensure that the Mackinac Center is in full compliance with federal tax law."
But, despite all its efforts to achieve major legal changes such as "right to work," and its own admission that it had been pushing the change and communicating with state legislators about it, the Mackinac Center reported no lobbying to the IRS in 2012, 2011, or 2010.
According to the National Review and SPN's website, SPN was founded at the suggestion of President Ronald Reagan. In a conversation with Thomas Roe (a member of his "kitchen cabinet") in the 1980s, Reagan allegedly suggested Roe create "something like a Heritage Foundation in each of the states." SPN was formally created as an "umbrella organization" to provide "advisory services" for the web of state-based Heritage-like groups -- bankrolled by Roe and other conservative funders -- in 1992.
From 1992 to 1998, SPN operated in a relatively limited organizational capacity. Then, according to SPN, "SPN's Board of Directors realized the need for a stronger organization that would provide additional services. After extensive discussions, the existing Board took a bold and historic step in September 1998, dissolving itself and appointing a transitional Board to fulfill the broader role envisioned for the organization." SPN has continued to grow at a rapid rate, expanding from 43 member state think tanks in 2002 to 64 member state think tanks in 2013.