Learn more about how the State Policy Network aids ALEC and spins disinformation in the states.
SPN Agenda is a breakout article from the main article on the State Policy Network (SPN).
- "We simply will not have power on the national level until we declare ware on state legislatures." - Don E. Eberly, former president of the Pennsylvania SPN affiliate, Commonwealth Foundation for Public Policy Alternatives
SPN is a web of right-wing “think tanks” and tax-exempt organizations in 50 states, Washington, D.C., Canada, and the United Kingdom. As of April 2023, SPN's membership totals 163. 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. 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.
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.'"
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.
Please see the State Policy Network for more.
Below is analysis of SPN's agenda:
- 1 What SPN and its Think Tanks Do
- 1.1 1) Franchising Think Tanks and Building the Echo Chamber
- 1.2 2) "Applied Policy": Writing and Advancing State Law Changes
- 1.3 3) Funding
- 1.4 4) Non-Partisan, Non-Profit "Scholars" Advance Partisan Agenda
- 1.5 5) Educate and Train Legislators
- 1.6 6) Media Messaging and Support
- 1.7 7) Litigation
- 1.8 8) Training a New Generation of Activists
- 1.9 9) "Special-Interest, Big Business Lobbying Groups?"
- 2 SPN Publications
- 3 Articles and Resources
- 4 References
What SPN and its Think Tanks Do
- "The [SPN] state think tanks' agenda includes privatization of most public services, from mass transit to health clinics to environmental protection, and even libraries; vouchers and tax credits to promote competition between public and private schools; deregulation of business; opposition to labor-backed policies like the minimum wage and family leave; and rollback of taxes." - National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, "Public Policy Initiatives Shifting To Jefferson City, Olympia, Albany," Spring 1991
- "Privatization is the altar at which the American Legislative Exchange Council and the Madison Group [SPN's predecessor] worship. . . . For most public services, it is believed the private sector not only acts more efficiently, but that it has the inalienable right to the task" - National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, "Privatization -- from Garbage to Schools -- Is Hallmark of State Conservative Movement," Spring 1991 (See the SourceWatch portal on "Outsourcing America Exposed" for more on privatization.)
SPN's innocuous-sounding purpose, according to its by-laws, is to "assist in organizing, developing and raising funds for institutes throughout the United States whose purpose is the promotion of authoritative ideas and research studies on state and local public policy issues in the public interest." When SPN founder Thomas A. Roe was asked in an interview about his role in encouraging the formation of state think tanks across the country, he recalled a mid-1980's conversation he had with fellow wealthy conservative donor and Heritage Foundation trustee Robert Krieble, in which he allegedly said, "You capture the Soviet Union -- I'm going to capture the states." SPN's founding executive director, Lamm, is quoted in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette as calling what think tanks in the network do "constructive troublemaking."
Lamm also told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that he discourages think tanks from classifying themselves as "state-based Heritage Foundation[s]," even though that's what SPN was founded to create (according to the National Review), because "[t]he labels are misleading, and they cause more harm than good."
Below are some details of SPN's efforts to franchise new think tanks, network information, change state laws, train legislative candidates, advance a partisan legislative agenda, create political cover for right-wing candidates, provide public relations plans and assistance, and create litigation centers:
1) Franchising Think Tanks and Building the Echo Chamber
Like a fast food restaurant, SPN has worked hard to grow and franchise state-based think tanks, expanding that number from 12 in 1992 to 63 in 2013, with some states having multiple groups. And they continued to develop new and existing think tanks in 2011, receiving several directed, start-up grants from funders for groups in Florida and Arkansas. SPN facilitates networking and information sharing. One requirement of SPN member think tanks, according to the National Review, is that they share their publications with each other. "We trade information all the time and borrow ideas from each other," according to the Alabama Policy Institute’s Gary Palmer.
Sometimes this sharing looks like cookie cutter academics frosted with different think tanks' logos. According to the New York Times, Lawrence Reed of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy "has a standard speech he calls the 'Seven Principles of Sound Public Policy.' [Christopher J.] Derry [of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions] added the words 'for Kentucky' and took it on the fund-raising trail. The Evergreen Freedom Foundation, in Olympia, Wash., is known for its guide to paring state budgets. Mr. Derry distributed it under the Bluegrass name. A Maryland paper on excessive lawsuits, republished in North Carolina, gained a third life as 'Preparing for Tort Reform in Kentucky.'" The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette notes that the Arkansas Policy Foundation expected in 1995, just after its founding, "to release a report containing charts, graphics and statistics describing life in Arkansas. The state's Index of Leading Cultural Indicators will mirror a national report with the same name released in 1993 by former U.S. Education Secretary William Bennett and the Heritage Foundation."
SPN groups also coordinate national pushes in particular policy areas. Starting in 2007, the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) launched a national effort to reform criminal justice policy in the states. Within four years, at least nine other state think tanks were involved, echoing research and talking points, including in Delaware, South Carolina, Colorado, Georgia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, New Mexico, Ohio, and Nebraska.
2) "Applied Policy": Writing and Advancing State Law Changes
Darcy Olsen, president and CEO of SPN member think tank the Goldwater Institute, told the National Review, "We're in the business of applied policy." Applied policy appears to translate to changing the law. Although they do not usually register as lobbyists, many SPN members advance legislation through ALEC and outside of ALEC. They are in constant communication with the legislature and have exerted strong influence on state laws.
Think tanks in Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, North Carolina, Texas, and Washington have all drafted state legislation hamstringing worker and environmental protections and more, and “sponsored” it through the process of becoming an ALEC “model” bill for the states (see SPN Ties to ALEC for more). Think tanks also push their own model legislation. Arizona’s Goldwater Institute has a section of its website devoted to 16 “model” bills “to expand liberty,” including three bills to undermine the federal Affordable Care Act and a bill to form a contract among states in an attempt to make enforcement of any federal gun control legislation the “equivalent of a federal crime.”
SPN appears to be a source of funding for the SPN member groups, but how funding SPN controls or directs is unknown. SPN gives some of its member think tanks anywhere between $9,000 and $122,000 a year, according to the organization’s 2011 IRS filing. But in 2012, a list of 2010 funders of the SPN member the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) became public and revealed some inconsistencies between what SPN tells the IRS it gives a think tank like TPPF and what TPPF reports.
According to SPN’s 2010 IRS Form 990, it gave TPPF $19,500 in fiscal year 2010 (which is reported to be the calendar year). But according to Schedule B of TPPF’s 2010 IRS Form 990 (which was inadvertently made public), SPN gave TPPF $49,306.90, and SPN’s executive director Tracie Sharp was the contact person for an additional combined total of $495,000 from two unknown funds in fiscal year 2010 (which is also reported to be the calendar year for TPPF’s filings).
Please see SPN Funding for more details, and more funders revealed by this document.
4) Non-Partisan, Non-Profit "Scholars" Advance Partisan Agenda
The National Review notes that the individual SPN member think tanks "develop many of the ideas that rightward candidates can run on." But this effort goes far beyond generic talking points. In Wisconsin, for instance, the MacIver Institute ran a joint project fueled and funded by the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity group in support of Scott Walker’s recall election. In a $3 million "It's Working!" TV ad campaign with an accompanying website and townhall events, the two organizations touted the successes of Walker's policies, including policies impacting workers, local governments, public education, and social programs. The website echoed many of the claims on Walker's taxpayer-funded "Reforms and Results" website, which had resulted in a complaint to the state ethics board.
In many states, there is a revolving door between SPN groups and the Republican establishment. For instance, the staff at the Massachusetts-based Pioneer Institute for Public Policy has extensive ties to Mitt Romney's presidential campaign, as documented here.
5) Educate and Train Legislators
Through ALEC, SPN think tanks plan and conduct hundreds of “educational” workshops for legislators that often result in legislative push for a specific agenda. For example, Colorado’s Independence Institute gave a report on “public pension reform” at ALEC’s 2011 annual meeting, followed by efforts to privatize and otherwise alter pensions being introduced in 29 states in that year.
Many SPN think tanks hold “legislative forums,” seminars, “policy previews,” “policy orientations,” etc. when their state’s legislature begins a new session. Whether called lobbying or not, these events present state legislators with the policy priorities and bills being pushed by the think tanks for that legislative session. These events have been held by the Montana Policy Institute, the Idaho Freedom Foundation, the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, and Oregon’s Cascade Policy Institute, the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, Louisiana’s Pelican Institute for Public Policy, North Carolina’s John William Pope Civitas Institute, New Jersey’s Common Sense Institute, the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, and the Illinois Policy Foundation, according to SPN News. These events are intended to do things like “show lawmakers how to fund transportation infrastructure with private money,” phrased very carefully to avoid works like “convince,” “persuade,” and “lobby.”
6) Media Messaging and Support
Participants in SPN's predecessor organization, known as the Madison Group for its meetings at the ultra-luxurious Madison Hotel in Washington, D.C. (see SPN Founders, History, and Staff for more), "were active in assisting new state-based think tanks with public relations plans designed to garner press clippings from right-wing publications, along with state, local, and national newspapers and magazines. Despite corporate and conservative foundation support and a conservative agenda, these state-based think tanks were trained by the Madison Group to speak to the media and politicians in populist terms like 'Welfare Reform,' 'Empowerment of the Poor,' 'School Choice,' and now of course 'Paycheck Protection,'" according to a report.
Today, SPN think tanks are hiring their own "investigative reporters" or hooking up with right-wing media outlets to push out their message. SPN’s 2007 annual meeting in Portland, Maine, included a session called "Strategies to Bring the Policy Heat: Collaborating with c-4s, Hiring Investigative Reporters and Using Litigation." Two years later, the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity -- a national non-profit organization that was created to fill a void in state capitol reporting caused by the loss of a third of the nation’s journalism jobs since 1992 -- was founded. The Franklin Center funds state news websites and wire services in more than 40 states. Despite their non-partisan description, many of these “news” websites have received criticism for their conservative bias. A majority (37) of SPN think tanks host Franklin "reporters" or publish a Franklin-affiliated publication, according to a review by CMD.
As an example of how these outfits operate, New Hampshire's Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy (JBCPP) runs the Franklin site NewHampshire.Watchdog.org. The think tank's staffer Grant Bosse edits the publication. Not only does he use the platform to spin disinformation -- such as publishing "news articles" on how the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) is "all about money" while the publication and JBCPP strive to repeal it -- but he testifies to the state legislature against policies like RGGI without disclosing his ties to the JBCPP or the Franklin Center, as shown by the video footage obtained by the organization Granite State Progress (at left).
(Please see each of the SPN Members for more on each of their ties to the Franklin Center and its publications.)
Several SPN members have created "litigation centers." Clint Bolick, who runs Goldwater's litigation center, told the National Review, "We realized that on some issues we needed to go to court or we wouldn't be able to change anything." (Goldwater is just one of the right-wing enterprises Bolick has aided. He defended the Thompson-backed school voucher program when he was with the Landmark Legal Foundation, co-founded the "Institute for Justice," and previously led the "Alliance for School Choice.")
Goldman was the first of the SPN member think tanks to open a litigation center as a permanent part of its organization. But as of 2012, Washington State's Freedom Foundation and the Nevada Policy Research Institute also have litigation programs, as do some of its associate members, like the North Carolina Institute for Constitutional Law.
Delaware’s Caesar Rodney Institute launched a special fundraising campaign at the beginning of 2012 to pay for a lawsuit against the state of Delaware to challenge its practice of awarding state construction jobs only to contractors paying union scale wages, charging that the methodology used to figure out the prevailing wage rates was flawed. When legislation drafted by the think tank to address the perceived issue failed at the committee level, the group told SPN that it would take to the courts.
Many of the SPN groups also submit amicus curiae briefs. Several, for example, filed briefs challenging the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in the Supreme Court case National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius.
8) Training a New Generation of Activists
Together, SPN and the Koch-funded Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University sponsor the "Charles G. Koch Summer Fellow Program." This program coordinates internships at SPN member think tanks for an "intensive ten-week program begins in June" that "includes a $1,500 stipend and a housing allowance."
This program trains hundreds of conservative activists each year and connects them to other parts of the right-wing infrastructure for changing American law and society that the Kochs have helped build. Together with its ties to ALEC, the Heritage Foundation, and major right-wing funders like the Bradley Foundation, SPN's alliances and "troublemaking" activities enable it to be a major force for privatization and pro-corporate ideology in all 50 states.
9) "Special-Interest, Big Business Lobbying Groups?"
Susan Goldwater, daughter of Barry Goldwater, the namesake of Arizona’s Goldwater Institute, called the institute “a special-interest, big-business lobbying group.” As of 2013, according to a report on the institute, “Goldwater has one registered lobbyist, its Executive Vice President Starlee Rhoades, and although senior staffer Nick Dranias is not registered as a lobbyist, many of his communications would strike a layperson as lobbying, but Arizona law has loopholes for providing ‘technical’ advice about legislation defining that not as lobbying. . . . Despite a steady stream of communication with Arizona state legislators about bills, referenced by number or popular name, that it wants to become law, the Goldwater Institute told the IRS that it spent only $184 on grassroots lobbying and $17,445 on direct lobbying, for a total of $17,669 in lobbying expenses in 2011, well below the permissible ceiling for such expenses as a 501(c)(3).”
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