Wisconsin Policy Research Institute

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The Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, or WPRI is a right-wing "think tank" based in Wisconsin. It calls itself "Wisconsin's Free Market Think Tank"[1] and says it is "guided by a belief that competitive free markets, limited government, private initiative, and personal responsibility are essential to our democratic way of life."[1] It publishes WI Magazine and WPRI Reports.

WPRI is a member of the State Policy Network (SPN), a sister organization to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and a centrally funded collection of 134 state-based think tanks and tax-exempt organizations.

News and Controversies

WPRI Publishes Report Questioning Need for Tenure on University of Wisconsin Campuses

In February of 2016, WPRI published a report attacking one of the foundations of the university: tenure. The report was released not even a year after Gov. Scott Walker removed tenure protections in the State budget he signed in July, 2015.[2] The release of the report was timed to influence the UW Board of Regents who were set to vote on tenure protections for the UW system of public colleges and universities on March 10, 2016.[3]

The CapTimes reported that, "The WPRI report “fails to recognize the economic value of tenure, and the need to protect academic freedom against meddling by powerful political and business interests,” as well as the role tenure has played in the rise of the American university over time, said Vanness, an associate professor of population health sciences and president of the UW-Madison chapter of the American Association of University Professors."[4]

Despite widespread opposition from faculty, two of WPRI's tenure reform proposals were adopted and challenges to them were voted down. Tenured faculty in the UW System will now have to undergo performance reviews every five years. A poor evaluation will result in termination if the faculty member does not demonstrate improvement after three semesters. UW tenured faculty also can now be laid off for “program discontinuance” due to “educational considerations.” These “may include strategic institutional planning considerations such as long-term student and market demand and societal needs.” Read more on the tenure reforms here.

The American Association of University Professors released a statement immediately following the Board’s vote criticizing their changes to tenure,

“The regents had an opportunity to affirm the University of Wisconsin System's commitment to academic freedom and to the university's continued contribution to the common good, as enshrined in the Wisconsin Idea. They failed to do so. The reason for the adoption of the present policy will likely become apparent when it is put into practice.”

WPRI, SPN, ALEC and the Right-Wing, Cookie-Cutter Agenda

WPRI says it is not a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and touts itself as a “completely independent, free market think tank.” However, WPRI is a member of ALEC’s sister-organization the State Policy Network (SPN). SPN's predecessor, the Madison Group, was founded by ALEC in the 1980s. By 2013, SPN had become a centrally-funded $84 million dollar network of 64 state-based “think tanks.” As the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) has documented, many of the foundations and corporations funding SPN, such as Reynolds Tobacco, Altria, AT&T and Verizon, are the same ones funding ALEC. A primary purpose of these “think tanks” is to back the introduction of ALEC bills with seemingly independent, academic sounding “reports."

For example, when Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker reversed course and decided to embrace an ALEC “right to work” bill in 2015, WPRI quickly commissioned ALEC “scholar” Richard Vedder to produce a cookie-cutter report showing how “right to work" would benefit the state.[5][6] So-called right to work laws require unions to provide the same representation and workplace services to all workers in a workplace, but make contributing to the cost of that representation optional, leading to weaker unions and lower worker wages and benefits. Wisconsin “right to work” bill was an ALEC cookie-cutter measure, an almost a verbatim copy.[7] Vedder had written nearly identical right-to-work reports for SPN affiliates in Minnesota and Ohio. Yet, in presenting the research to the legislature, WPRI head Mike Nichols claimed that the WPRI "provided nonpartisan, objective research on issues of interest and importance to Wisconsin’s citizens and legislators.”[8]

Economist Gordon Lafer, an Associate Professor at the University of Oregon, called Vedder’s report “is either incompetent or intentionally misleading.”[9] According to Lafer, Vedder’s report used the wrong metrics, by assessing the possible effect of right to work laws on personal income, rather than on wages.

In addition, Vedder claims right-to-work would have boosted per capita personal income in Wisconsin by $1,600 per year if it had been enacted thirty years earlier. In contrast, the leading study on right-to-work, from Elise Gould and Heidi Shierholz (who is now Chief Economist at the U.S. Department of Labor) found that wages in right-to-work states are $1,500 lower.[10]

The Madison Group, the predecessor to the SPN was "launched by the American Legislative Exchange Council or ALEC . . . and housed in the Chicago-based Heartland Institute,“ according to a 1991 report by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP). While ALEC promotes a national agenda to state legislators, the state "think tanks" are used to make that national agenda look local.[11]

For more on SPN, please see the website, and you can access CMD's 2013 report on the SPN Network here.

SPN is a web of right-wing “think tanks” and tax-exempt organizations in 49 states, Puerto Rico, Washington, D.C., Canada, and the United Kingdom. As of July 2017, SPN's membership totals 153. It is an $83 million right-wing empire as of the 2011 funding documents from SPN itself and each of its state "think tank" members. Although SPN's member organizations claim to be nonpartisan and independent, the Center for Media and Democracy's in-depth investigation, "EXPOSED: The State Policy Network -- The Powerful Right-Wing Network Helping to Hijack State Politics and Government," 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.[12]

In response to CMD's report, SPN Executive Director Tracie Sharp told national and statehouse reporters that SPN affiliates are "fiercely independent." 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.'"[13]

A set of coordinated fundraising proposals obtained and released by The Guardian in early December 2013 confirm many of these SPN members' intent to change state laws and policies, referring to "advancing model legislation" and "candidate briefings." These activities "arguably cross the line into lobbying," The Guardian notes.[14]

Other Issues

The Institute has played a prominent role in the development of Wisconsin's school voucher program and has formulated recommendations for state prison policy.[15]

The Institute partnered with the SPN associate member Beacon Hill Institute (BHI) on a report critiquing the recommendations from a 2007 state clean energy task force, including the state's renewable portfolio standards (RPS).


The Wisconsin Policy Research Institute is not required to disclose its funders. Its major foundation funder, however, can be found through a search of the IRS filings. The Bradley Foundation gave the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute a $2.8 million start-up grant in 1987.[16] Between 2000 and 2015, WPRI received $14.7 million from the foundation.

Core Financials


  • Total Revenue: $933,478
  • Total Expenses: $732,721
  • Net Assets: $2,830,050


  • Total Revenue: $646,042
  • Total Expenses: $682,259
  • Net Assets: $2,839,416


  • Total Revenue: $687,781
  • Total Expenses: $607,549
  • Net Assets: $1,968,508


  • Total Revenue: $672,091
  • Total Expenses: $930,057
  • Net Assets: $1,888,276


  • Total Revenue: $695,036
  • Total Expenses: $942,350
  • Net Assets: $2,146,242


  • Total Revenue: $1,821,093.00
  • Total Expenses: $1,748,844.00
  • Net Assets: $2,393,556.00


  • Total Revenue: $884,047.00
  • Total Expenses: $670,575.00
  • Net Assets: $2,321,307.00



As of January 2017:[24]

  • Mike Nichols, President
  • Mabel Wong, Editor
  • Sue Ettmayer, Office Manager
  • Dan Benson, Project Editor, Project for 21st Century Federalism
  • Dave Daley, Reporter, Project for 21st Century Federalism

Board of Directors

As of January 2017:[25]

  • Tom Howatt, Chairman
  • David Baumgarten
  • Ave Bie
  • Catherine Dellin
  • Jon Hammes
  • Corey Hoze
  • Mike Jones
  • David Lubar
  • Bill Nasgovitz
  • Jim Nellen
  • Maureen Oster
  • Ulice Payne Jr.
  • Tim Sheehy

Former Directors

  • Ed Zore
  • James R. Klauser
  • Gerald Whitburn
  • Edward Zore
  • George Lightbourn

Contact Information

Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, Inc.
633 W. Wisconsin Avenue, Suite 330

Milwaukee, WI  53203
Web Site:


Articles and Resources

Related SourceWatch Articles

Related PRWatch Articles

External Resources


  1. 1.0 1.1 Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, "About WPRI", organizational website, accessed September 2012.
  2. Kimberly Hefling, Walker erodes college professor tenure, Politico, July 12, 2015.
  3. Pat Schneider, Conservative think tank tells UW regents to make campuses prove they need tenure, CapTimes, March 2, 2016.
  4. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named ps
  5. Mary Bottari, Scott Walker Pushes ALEC ‘Right to Work’ Bill, Divide and Conquer Comes Full Circle, ‘’Huffington Post’’, February 22, 2015.
  6. Richard Vedder, Joseph Hartge, and Christopher Denhart, The Economic Impact of a Right-to-Work Law on the Wisconsin Economy, ‘’Wisconsin Policy Research Institute’’, February 2015.
  7. Brendan Fischer, Wisconsin Introduces Word-for-Word ALEC Right to Work Bill, ‘’PR Watch’’, February 20, 2015.
  8. Mike Nichols, Testimony by Mike Nichols, ‘’Wisconsin Policy Research Institute’’, February 24, 2015.
  9. Brendan Fischer, Surprise! ALEC Scholar Says ALEC Right to Work Will Boost WI Economy, ‘’PR Watch’’, February 26, 2015.
  10. Heidi Shierholz and Elise Gould, Economic Policy Institute Report Unions and Labor Standards: The compensation penalty of “right-to-work” laws, Feb. 17, 2011
  11. Rebekah Wilce, Did ALEC Found SPN? 1991 Report Suggests So, Exposes SPN Agenda, ‘’PR Watch’’, December 12, 2013.
  12. Rebekah Wilce, Center for Media and Democracy, EXPOSED: The State Policy Network -- The Powerful Right-Wing Network Helping to Hijack State Politics and Government, organizational report, November 13, 2013.
  13. Jane Mayer, Is IKEA the New Model for the Conservative Movement?, The New Yorker, November 15, 2013.
  14. Ed Pilkington and Suzanne Goldenberg, State conservative groups plan US-wide assault on education, health and tax, The Guardian, December 5, 2013.
  15. Media Transpareny: Receipt Grants: Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, Inc.. Retrieved on 2008-12-02.
  16. Barbara Miner, Wisconsin's Progressive Tradition at Stake in the Recall Election, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, May 14, 2012.
  17. Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, [paper copy IRS 2015 Form 990], organizational tax filing, August 16, 2016.
  18. Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, IRS 2014 Form 990, organizational tax filing, July 24, 2015.
  19. Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, IRS 2013 Form 990, organizational tax filing, July 21, 2014.
  20. Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, IRS 2012 Form 990, organizational tax filing, July 31, 2013.
  21. Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, IRS 2011 Form 990, organizational tax filing, August 8, 2012.
  22. Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, IRS form 990, 2010. GuideStar.
  23. Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, IRS form 990, 2009. GuideStar.
  24. Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, About WPRI, Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, 2017.
  25. Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, About WPRI, Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, 2017.