Badger Institute

From SourceWatch
Jump to navigation Jump to search

The Badger Institute, formerly the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute,[1] is a right-wing "think tank" based in Wisconsin founded in 1987. It calls itself "Wisconsin's Free Market Think Tank"[2] 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." It publishes WI Magazine and WPRI Reports.

WPRI is an associate member of the State Policy Network (SPN), a web of right-wing “think tanks” and tax-exempt organizations in 50 states, Washington, D.C., Canada, and the United Kingdom.

News and Controversies

Badger Institute Commissions Report Spreading Unfound Fears of a Minimum Wage Increase in Wisconsin

The Badger Institute commissioned a "policy brief" through Marquette University's economics department in 2019 that spread fears of a massive job loss of 350,000 in Wisconsin.[3] The report was a response to Governor Tony Evers budget which included funding for a study on the economic impact a $15/hour minimum wage would have on the economy.

"Governor Evers’ proposal mirrors what Wisconsin’s neighbor, Minnesota, has done over the past decades. Under Governor Mark Dayton’s leadership, Minnesota raised its minimum wage from $7.25 to $9.50 between 2014 and 2017. Yet, an Economic Policy Institute (EPI) report finds that Minnesota has outperformed Wisconsin on job growth and that 'on virtually every metric, workers and families in Minnesota are better off than their counterparts in Wisconsin,'" Scott Zimmerman reported.[3]

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

In February of 2016, the Badger Institute, then-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.[4] 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.[5]

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."[5]

Despite widespread opposition from faculty, two of the Badger Institutes'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

The Badger Institute 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.[6][7] 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.[8] 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.”[9]

Economist Gordon Lafer, an Associate Professor at the University of Oregon, called Vedder’s report “is either incompetent or intentionally misleading.”[10] 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.[11]

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.[12]

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 48 states, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, and the United Kingdom. As of June 2024, SPN's membership totals 167. Today's SPN is the tip of the spear of far-right, nationally funded policy agenda in the states that undergirds extremists in the Republican Party. SPN Executive Director Tracie Sharp told the Wall Street Journal in 2017 that the revenue of the combined groups was some $80 million, but a 2022 analysis of SPN's main members IRS filings by the Center for Media and Democracy shows that the combined revenue is over $152 million.[13] 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.[14]

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.'"[15]

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.[16]

Ties to the Bradley Foundation

Through 2016 the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute received $13,430,000 from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

Bradley detailed the most recent grants in internal documents examined by the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD). Below is a description of the grant prepared by CMD. The quoted text was written by Bradley staff.

2015: $375,000 to support general operations. Bradley’s contribution is over half of WPRI’s 2015 projected revenue of $644,000. The grant funds Mike Nichols, president of WPRI, a social media intern, and projects. “WPRI’s recent statewide polls on union and Right to Work again amplified by social media received a great deal of local, statewide, and national play due to its surprising revelations of the public’s views on those topics.”

2014: $375,000 to support general operations and a proposal for “White Paper and Poll on Right to Work Issue.” Bradley gave WPRI its founding grant in 1987 (two grants totaling $2.4 million that year). New president Mike Nichols hoped to move WPRI into “more contemporary modes of communication and style.” They brought on an intern and researcher to work toward reaching out to younger audiences. In 2014, WPRI began a study of the impacts of potential tax structures in Wisconsin, as well as an analysis of the impact of the $6 billion in state funding spent on the UW system. WPRI questioned whether the UW system’s mission was aiding with “economic development.”

Bradley Files

In 2017, the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD), publishers of SourceWatch, launched a series of articles on the Milwaukee-based Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, exposing the inner-workings of one of America's largest right-wing foundations. 56,000 previously undisclosed documents laid bare the Bradley Foundation's highly politicized agenda. CMD detailed Bradley's efforts to map and measure right wing infrastructure nationwide, including by dismantling and defunding unions to impact state elections; bankrolling discredited spin doctor Richard Berman and his many front groups; and more.

Find the series here at

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.[17]

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 Badger Institute is not required to disclose its funders. Its major foundation funders, however, can be found through a search of the IRS filings. Here are some of the known funders of the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute:

Core Financials


  • Total Revenue: $960,504
  • Total Expenses: $1,145,144
  • Net Assets: $2,701,311


  • Total Revenue: $988,146
  • Total Expenses: $1,001,100
  • Net Assets: $3,052,268


  • Total Revenue: $1,303,609
  • Total Expenses: $1,008,939
  • Net Assets: $3,072,303


  • Total Revenue: $422,631
  • Total Expenses: $910,229
  • Net Assets: $2,627,536


  • 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 December 2021:[29]

  • Mike Nichols, President
  • Michael Jahr, Senior Vice President
  • Angela Smith, Director of Development
  • Katee Holcomb, Office Manager
  • Patrick McIlheran, Director of Policy
  • Kirsten Golinski, Manager of Operations
  • Remso Martinez, Digital Marketing Manager
  • Jim Bender, Lobbyist

Former Staff

  • Julie Grace, Policy Analyst
  • David Fladeboe, Public Affairs Associate
  • Jacob Martin, Marketing and Media Coordinator
  • 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 December 2021:[30]

  • Jon Hammes, Chairman
  • Ave Bie, Vice Chair
  • Nicholas Bauer
  • David Baumgarten
  • Gail Hanson
  • Corey Hoze
  • Jason Kohout
  • David Lubar
  • Lisa Mauer
  • Jim Nellen
  • Ellen Nowak
  • Maureen Oster

Former Directors

  • Tom Howatt, Chairman
  • Catherine Dellin
  • Bill Nasgovitz
  • Tim Sheehy
  • Ulice Payne Jr.
  • Mike Jones
  • Ed Zore
  • James R. Klauser
  • Gerald Whitburn
  • Edward Zore
  • George Lightbourn

Contact Information

Badger Institute
633 W. Wisconsin Avenue, Suite 330

Milwaukee, WI  53203
Web Site:


Articles and Resources

IRS Form 990 Filings





Related SourceWatch Articles

Related PRWatch Articles

External Resources


  1. Badger Institute WPRI is now the Badger Institute Press release, Oct. 19, 2017
  2. Badger Institute, "About Badger", organizational website, accessed September 2012.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Scott Zimmerman, Right-Wing Network Fights Proposed Wisconsin Minimum Wage Hike, ExposedbyCMD, June 26, 2019.
  4. Kimberly Hefling, Walker erodes college professor tenure, Politico, July 12, 2015.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Pat Schneider, Conservative think tank tells UW regents to make campuses prove they need tenure, CapTimes, March 2, 2016.
  6. Mary Bottari, Scott Walker Pushes ALEC ‘Right to Work’ Bill, Divide and Conquer Comes Full Circle, ‘’Huffington Post’’, February 22, 2015.
  7. 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.
  8. Brendan Fischer, Wisconsin Introduces Word-for-Word ALEC Right to Work Bill, ‘’PR Watch’’, February 20, 2015.
  9. Mike Nichols, Testimony by Mike Nichols, ‘’Wisconsin Policy Research Institute’’, February 24, 2015.
  10. Brendan Fischer, Surprise! ALEC Scholar Says ALEC Right to Work Will Boost WI Economy, ‘’PR Watch’’, February 26, 2015.
  11. Heidi Shierholz and Elise Gould, Economic Policy Institute Report Unions and Labor Standards: The compensation penalty of “right-to-work” laws, Feb. 17, 2011
  12. Rebekah Wilce, Did ALEC Found SPN? 1991 Report Suggests So, Exposes SPN Agenda, ‘’PR Watch’’, December 12, 2013.
  13. David Armiak, State Policy Network and Affiliates Raises $152 Million Annually to Push Right-Wing Policies, ExposedbyCMD, September 30, 2022.
  14. 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.
  15. Jane Mayer, Is IKEA the New Model for the Conservative Movement?, The New Yorker, November 15, 2013.
  16. Ed Pilkington and Suzanne Goldenberg, State conservative groups plan US-wide assault on education, health and tax, The Guardian, December 5, 2013.
  17. Media Transparency: Receipt Grants: Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, Inc.. Retrieved on 2008-12-02.
  18. Badger Institute, 2019 Form 990, organizational tax filing, January 18, 2021.
  19. Badger Institute, 2018 Form 990, organizational tax filing, August 12, 2019.
  20. Badger Institute, 2017 Form 990, organizational tax filing, August 3, 2018.
  21. Badger Institute, 2016 Form 990, organizational tax filing, August 16, 2016.
  22. Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, [paper copy IRS 2015 Form 990], organizational tax filing, August 16, 2016.
  23. Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, IRS 2014 Form 990, organizational tax filing, July 24, 2015.
  24. Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, IRS 2013 Form 990, organizational tax filing, July 21, 2014.
  25. Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, IRS 2012 Form 990, organizational tax filing, July 31, 2013.
  26. Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, IRS 2011 Form 990, organizational tax filing, August 8, 2012.
  27. Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, IRS form 990, 2010. GuideStar.
  28. Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, IRS form 990, 2009. GuideStar.
  29. Badger Institute, Staff, Badger Institute, 2021.
  30. Badger Institute, About WPRI, Badger Institute, 2021.