Wisconsin Policy Research Institute

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Learn more about how the State Policy Network aids ALEC and spins disinformation in the states.

Learn more about corporations VOTING to rewrite our laws.

The Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, or WPRIis 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 64 state-based think tanks.

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.[2][3] 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.[4] 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.”[5]

Economist Gordon Lafer, an Associate Professor at the University of Oregon, called Vedder’s report “is either incompetent or intentionally misleading.”[6] 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.[7]

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.[8]

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

SPN is a web of right-wing “think tanks” in every state across the country. 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.[9]

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.'"[10]

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.[11]

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.[12]

The Institute partnered with the 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 Bradley Foundation gave the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute a $2.8 million start-up grant in 1987, and by 2010 it had given WPRI a total of $16.5 million.[13] Between 2001 and 2010, WPRI received $7 million from the foundation.[14]

Core Financials


  • Total Revenue: $687,700.


  • Total Revenue: $672,000.


  • 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

2015 Personnel

President Mike Nichols. From 2009-2013, Nichols was a WPRI senior fellow, syndicated newspaper columnist and communications consultant.

2015 Board of Directors

Board of Directors

Tom Howatt, Chairman, Wausau Paper Company David Baumgarten, Bank Mutual Ave Bie, Quarles & Brady Catherine Dellin, Camp 5 Museum Foundation Jon Hammes, Hammes Company Corey Hoze, Associated Banc-Corp Mike Jones, MillerCoors David Lubar, Lubar & Co. Jim Nellen Maureen Oster Ulice Payne Jr., Addison-Clifton, LLC Tim Sheehy, Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce Ed Zore, Northwestern Mutual

As of April 2013:[18]

  • James R. Klauser, Chairman (former senior vice president, Wisconsin Energy Corporation; Secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Administration from 1986-1996 under Governor Tommy Thompson and Special Counsel to the Governor from 1994 to 1996; Board of Regents, Milwaukee school of Engineering; Board of Trustees, Carthage College)
  • David Baumgarten (President, Bank Mutual; former Executive Vice President, Associated Banc-Corp; former President, Southeast Wisconsin Associated Bank; former President and CEO, US Bank, Wisconsin; former President and CEO, US Bank, Colorado; and Senior Vice President, First Bank, Minneapolis, Minnesota; Board of Directors, Metro Milwaukee Association of Commerce, Milwaukee Redevelopment Corporation, Wisconsin Procurement Institute, Boys & Girls Club of Greater Milwaukee, the Greater Milwaukee Committee and Athletes for Youth)
  • Catherine C. Dellin (President, Camp 5 Museum Foundation, Laona, Wisconsin)
  • Thomas J. Howatt (Chairman of the Board of Directors and former President and CEO, Wausau Paper Corporation; former Chairman, Wisconsin Paper Council; Dean’s Advisory Council, Purdue University Krannert School of Management; Board of Governors, National Council for Air and Stream Improvement; Chicago Advisory Board, FM Global; Board of Directors, M&I First American Bank)
  • Michael T. Jones (retired from MillerCoors in August of 2012; Board of Directors, North Shore Bank)
  • David J. Lubar (President, Lubar & Co.; Boards of Directors, Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company, Marshall & Ilsley Corp., and the Milwaukee Brewers baseball team; Board member, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Foundation, University School of Milwaukee, Greater Milwaukee Foundation, Froedtert & Community Health System, Milwaukee Jewish Federation, Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, and United Way of Greater Milwaukee)
  • Maureen Oster (President, MBO Advisors, LLC (merged with Cleary Gull Inc. in 2003); Board of Directors, Cleary Gull Holdings; Officer, Lipper Advisory Services; Advisor, L&S Partners I, LLC; former President and Director, Heritage Investment Advisors, Inc. and the Newton Funds (acquired by Marshall & Ilsley Corp. in 1985); Director and member of the Executive Committee, No Load Mutual Fund Association; Trustee, State of Wisconsin Investment Board (one of America’s largest public pension funds); Director, Milwaukee Insurance (now part of Unitrin); Trustee, Cardinal Stritch University; former President and Director, Milwaukee Investment Analysts Society)
  • 'Timothy Sheehy (President, Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce; former Legislative Assistant to U.S. Congressman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr.; Chairman of the Board, Milwaukee Economic Development Corporation; Board member, School Choice Wisconsin)
  • Gerald Whitburn (Chairman, President and CEO, Church Mutual Insurance Company; Board member and former Chairman, Property Casualty Insurers Association of American (PCI); Board member and Trustee, American Institute for Charter Property Casualty Underwriters (AICPCU); Director, Natural Resources Foundation; former Secretary, Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services; former Secretary of Health and Human Services, Wisconsin (1991-1995) and Labor Secretary (1989-1991))
  • Edward Zore (President and CEO, Northwestern Mutual; Board member, Manpower Inc.; Board member, American Council of Life Insurers; Member, Financial Services Roundtable; Advisory Board, The American College Center for Ethics in Financial Services; Conference Board and Advisory Board, Yale Center for Corporate Governance and Performance)
  • Ave Bie (Partner, Quarles & Brady; former Chairwoman, Public Service Commission (PSC) of Wisconsin; former Deputy Secretary, Department of Corrections, Deputy Secretary, Department of Regulation and Licensing and Director of Appointments for the Office of the Governor; President of the Board of Trustees, Edgewood Campus School; Board member and executive committee, United Way of Dane County; Board member, St. Mary’s Foundation; Board of Directors, Green Bay Packers)
  • Jon Hammes (Managing Partner, Hammes Company; Director, Medical College of Wisconsin, the University of Wisconsin Foundation, the YMCA of Metropolitan Milwaukee, the United Way of Greater Milwaukee and Junior Achievement; Board member, Greater Milwaukee Committee and WiCab, Inc.)
  • George Lightbourn, President (former Secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Administration; Chairman, Monona Community Development Authority; Board member, WCA Services, Inc.)

Contact Information

Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, Inc. 633 W. Wisconsin Avenue, Suite 330
Milwaukee, WI  53203 Phone: 
 wpri@wpri.org Web Contact Form: http://wpri.org/pages/contact.html
Web Site: http://wpri.org/

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. Mary Bottari, Scott Walker Pushes ALEC ‘Right to Work’ Bill, Divide and Conquer Comes Full Circle, ‘’Huffington Post’’, February 22, 2015.
  3. 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.
  4. Brendan Fischer, Wisconsin Introduces Word-for-Word ALEC Right to Work Bill, ‘’PR Watch’’, February 20, 2015.
  5. Mike Nichols, Testimony by Mike Nichols, ‘’Wisconsin Policy Research Institute’’, February 24, 2015.
  6. Brendan Fischer, Surprise! ALEC Scholar Says ALEC Right to Work Will Boost WI Economy, ‘’PR Watch’’, February 26, 2015.
  7. Heidi Shierholz and Elise Gould, Economic Policy Institute Report Unions and Labor Standards: The compensation penalty of “right-to-work” laws, Feb. 17, 2011
  8. Rebekah Wilce, Did ALEC Found SPN? 1991 Report Suggests So, Exposes SPN Agenda, ‘’PR Watch’’, December 12, 2013.
  9. 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.
  10. Jane Mayer, Is IKEA the New Model for the Conservative Movement?, The New Yorker, November 15, 2013.
  11. Ed Pilkington and Suzanne Goldenberg, State conservative groups plan US-wide assault on education, health and tax, The Guardian, December 5, 2013.
  12. Media Transpareny: Receipt Grants: Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, Inc.. Retrieved on 2008-12-02.
  13. Barbara Miner, Wisconsin's Progressive Tradition at Stake in the Recall Election, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, May 14, 2012.
  14. Daniel Bice, Bill Glauber, and Ben Poston, From local roots, Bradley Foundation builds conservative empire, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, November 28, 2011.
  15. Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, IRS 2011 Form 990, organizational tax filing, August 8, 2012.
  16. Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, IRS form 990, 2010. GuideStar.
  17. Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, IRS form 990, 2009. GuideStar.
  18. Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, About, organizational website, accessed April 2013.