Mackinac Center for Public Policy

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The Mackinac Center for Public Policy is a right-wing pressure group based in Michigan. Founded in 1987, it is the largest state-level "think tank" in the nation. It was established by right-wing activists to promote "free market," pro-business policies. The Center voices its policy positions through publications and has moved beyond Michigan by helping the leaders of similar conservative institutions to ratchet up their operations in many other states and countries around the world. It is a member of the State Policy Network (SPN), a web of state pressure groups that denote themselves as "think tanks" and drive a right-wing agenda in statehouses nationwide. The organization has drawn fire for its advocacy of right wing positions.[1]

Leading academics have criticized the Center, saying that "Mackinac Center research is often of low quality and because of this it should be treated with considerable skepticism by the public, policy makers and political leaders. Much of the work of the Mackinac Center may have caused more confusion than clarity in the public discussion of the issues that it has addressed by systematically ignoring evidence that does not agree with its proposed solutions."[2]

Former Mackinac Center scholar and Vice President Joseph P. Overton invented the concept of the Overton Window, which describes policy positions that are acceptable to the public. "Shifting the window" is the process of making previously unthinkable positions appear acceptable, or vice versa.

News and Controversies


Setting the Stage for Extremism in Michigan During COVID-19

During the anti COVID-19 lockdown protests in April of 2020, The Mackinac Center worked alongside the Michigan Freedom Fund and Michigan Conservative Coalition to promote "Operation Gridlock", a protest that capitalized on existing anti-lockdown sentiments.[3] The Mackinac Center's efforts continued on the legal front against Michigan's Governor Gretchen Whitmer. On May 18, 2020 the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation filed a preliminary injunction that "sought an immediate order from a judge to block the governor's executive orders."[4] According to PR Watch, "in September, the conservative state Supreme Court heard the case, and on Oct. 2 it issued a 4-3 decision nullifying the orders, ruling that she lacked the authority to issue emergency orders after April 30. Most states are currently under some form of emergency declaration, making Michigan an outlier." [3]

Despite evidence that Michigan's stay-at-home order and broader COVID-19 response was one of the most effective in the United States, The Mackinac Center was part of continuous attacks against Governor Whitmer, tacitly condoning and overtly encouraging extremist far right sentiments. After months of attacks on Whitmer and multiple lawsuits against her, on October 8, 2020 state and federal agencies arrested 13 members of an all-white militia group planning to kidnap and possibly execute Whitmer and start a civil war.[5] Alex Kotch from PR Watch writes that "the would-be kidnappers’ motivation was Whitmer’s coronavirus-related restrictions. The men’s rhetoric mirrored that of GOP politicians and political groups; they referenced Whitmer’s alleged “uncontrolled power” and spoke of murdering “tyrants.”[3] Since the kidnapping attempt, The Mackinac Center has done little to dial down their attacks against Governor Whitmer.

Opposition to COVID-19 Related Student Debt Relief

In April 2023, the New Civil Liberties Alliance sued the US Department of Education on behalf of The Mackinac Center over what the suit claims to be the department’s “unlawful pause on student loan payments” during the COVID-19 pandemic.[6] In the lawsuit, the Center claims that only Congress can suspend student-loan repayment and cancel interest, and that the Department of Education, which is part of the executive branch, overstepped its statutory authority. “The Administrative State lacks the power to extend a debt-relief program beyond its statutory deadline,” NCLA’s Sheng Li said, a position consistent with conservatives’ long efforts to weaken the administrative state.[6]

Anti-Labor Positions

Attacks on the Michigan Education Association

The Mackinac Center has a decades-long record of attacking public school educators and their unions, in particular, the Michigan Education Association (MEA).

MEA settled a lawsuit with Mackinac in March 2023 after Mackinac filed what MEA called a “frivolous, politically-motivated lawsuit.”[7] In their press release on the settlement, MEA notes that “the Mackinac Center wasted valuable federal justice system time and resources attacking an organization that applied for a PPP loan in good faith and then returned the loan with interest."[7]

Anti-Union Labor Reforms

In March of 2020, The Mackinac Center released a publication titled "Top 20 State-Level Labor Reforms" which gives an overview on policies that can weaken the power and scope of public and private sector unions after the Janus v. AFSCME ruling.[8] The Mackinac Center released the publication alongside Workers for Opportunity, an organization founded and run by The Mackinac Center.[9]

The publication outlines ways to block unionization efforts for gig economy and home healthcare workers, and broadly offers legal and legislative ways to diminish the function of unions.

Section 3 and Section 13 use Wisconsin and Arizona as examples of limited collective bargaining rights. The example reforms in Wisconsin "limit collective bargaining to wages only and limit salary increases to the rate of inflation, unless the raises are put before voters via referendum".[10] For Arizona, the publication notes that Arizona does not allow for collective bargaining, but does allow for "meet and confer" meetings which produce "many of the same issues as traditional government collective bargaining."[11]

Section 8 outlines ways employers can change defined-benefit pension plans to a limited lump sum of money in a defined-contribution plan without "long term liability."[12] The publication ranks the level of difficulty for cutting employee pensions from "putting all new hires in a defined-contribution plan" as the easiest option to "clawing back existing defined-benefit pensions" as the hardest option which is "possibly illegal without bankruptcy."[12]

My Pay, My Say Campaign

My Pay My Say is a $10 million front group set up by The Mackinac Center to aid public sector union members in not paying fees to cover a union’s cost for negotiating better pay and benefits on their behalf following the Janus v. AFSCME labor case.[13] It purports to be a resource for "government workers who are currently compelled to pay their public unions as a condition of employment."[14] Members of the State Policy Network are joining with Mackinac and planning a "national communication and mobilization effort aimed at all public-sector employees." These efforts include YouTube videos "explaining" the Janus decision, and a forum to help visitors to its website "opt out" of their union.[15]

"My Pay, My Say generates a correctly formatted letter for all states to inform unions that an individual will no longer be a paying member. Teacher union members in Newton, MA received emails after the Janus decision directing them to this site, as did Illinois teachers," the Center for Media and Democracy reported.[16]

Involvement in Michigan's 2012 "Right to Work" Bill

Right to Work promotional video

On December 11, 2012, governor Rick Snyder signed into law a "right to work" bill, undermining collective bargaining by allowing workers to freeload off the benefits of union negotiations without paying the costs of union representation. The Mackinac Center played a prominent role in supporting this bill, which was later repealed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in 2023.

The Mackinac Center and its funders, such as the billionaire DeVos family of the Amway fortune, had been coordinating behind closed doors to effect this change "for 25 years," as a Mackinac blog post boasted after the bill passed. The Mackinac Center went 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."[17]

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 A. 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.[18]

Mackinac created or helped create two new online publications — 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.[19] 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," referring to the 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?)"[20]

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."[21]

Major funders of Mackinac are staunchly anti-labor, and have included the DeVos Family, heirs to the founder of Amway, and the Walton Family, heirs to Walmart. Between 1998 and 2011, Mackinac received $560,000 from four DeVos foundations; and between 2000 and 2003, the Walton Family Foundation donated at least $300,000. Both Amway and Walmart were among the 3,100 businesses that signed a letter in 2009 opposing the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), legislation that would have made it easier for workers to unionize. Walmart fought extensively to defeat the EFCA, spending $7.4 million in lobbying efforts. Mackinac shifted its position from questioning whether Michigan should be a Right to Work state in 1994 to adamantly supporting "Make Michigan Open for Business" in 1998, immediately after the the DeVos foundation donations appear to have begun.[22]

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,[23] 2011,[24] or 2010.[25]

See for more.

Link to Emergency Managers and Flint Water Crisis

The Mackinac Center played a role in the 2015 water crisis that contaminated the water of thousands of residents in Flint, Michigan, exposing Flint residents — including thousands of children — to high levels of lead and other hazardous substances.[26] From 2013-2014, two appointed emergency managers, Ed Kurtz and then Darnell Earley, oversaw the planning and implementation of a switch from Detroit water to the polluted Flint River, which was expected to save $5 million while the city waited for a new pipeline to Lake Huron.[27] Residents began complaining about the water quality soon after, and Flint's City Council voted in March 2015 to return to Detroit water, but as the emergency manager with the power to override local decisions, Earley blocked any switch.[28]

The Mackinac Center has historically supported emergency managers, and it had scripted legislation that passed in Michigan in 2012 that gave managers expanded powers, including the ability to "break union contracts, and revise municipal charters, while getting legal immunity from any liability for the results of their actions," as reported by the Center for Media and Democracy[27] Mackinac used the financial distress of Michigan public school districts and local governments to justify the expansion of power to unelected officials; according to Jack McHugh of the Mackinac Center, the expansion of emergency managers across the state by Governor Rick Snyder provided "rigorous 'chemotherapy'" required "to sustain the necessary functions of tapped-out school districts and local governments."[27]

Mackinac's Louis Schimmel called for loosening limits and expanding managers' powers as early as 2005, and the group reprinted his article in January 2011. Mackinac argued: "The state's policy prescription for fiscally floundering cities should be to appoint... far more powerful emergency financial managers than they have in the past."[27]

In March 2011, newly elected Republican Governor Rick Snyder signed into law Public Act 4, which gave him nearly unlimited power to declare financial emergencies and appoint emergency managers, and included all four of Mackinac's proposals to "improve" the previous, limited financial emergency law.[29] Public outrage over the law led to its repeal in a ballot referendum in November 2012, but Snyder pushed through an amended version (including a small appropriation to make it ineligible for another referendum) the following month.[27]

Flint was the first city to undergo the financial review process under the expanded law;[30]

Schimmel was named the state's first emergency manager by Snyder, who put him in charge of Pontiac, Michigan.[27] Schimmel proceeded to dismiss city officials, privatize the public works department, and outsource its water treatment to United Water Services, a for-profit company that had previously been indicted by a federal grand jury in 2010 on 26 felony counts of conspiracy and Clean Water Act violations for its mishandling of water services in Gary, Indiana. That case ended with the company paying a $645,000 civil fine under a consent agreement. Pontiac residents experience ongoing problems with water quality and sewer problems, and three years later the city's water treatment was taken over by Oakland County.[27]

Although Mackinac contributed to increasing the powers of emergency managers, it denies that was a factor in prompting the Flint crisis.[27] Instead, Mackinac released an article about the crisis that pointed to a cover-up by government officials in order to bolster Mackinac's own "constant narrative of supposed government incompetence and corruption."[27] Two other municipalities that like Flint, planned to switch to the Lake Huron supply, but which did not have emergency managers, simply negotiated new contracts with Detroit.[27]

Opposition to Climate Protections

Opposition to Environmental Protections

According to Progress Michigan, Mackinac has received generous funding from the Charles G. Koch Foundation in support of efforts to oppose environmental protection policies.[22] The foundation gave $79,151 between 2005 and 2009. During this period of time, Mackinac and Jack McHugh released reports supporting the "No-More-Stringent" law in Michigan, which prohibited the Department of Environmental Quality from adopting any regulation more stringent than the federal government. Koch industries is a known repeat offender of EPA regulations.[31]

Climate Change Denial and Opposition to Renewable Energy

Mackinac has also called research on anthropogenic global warming a "pseudoscience," citing well-known climate change deniers Patrick J. Michaels and Robert C. Balling to claim that the science behind global warming is unsubstantiated.[32] Mackinac has also advocated that Michigan lower its renewable portfolio standards (RPS) requirements to zero, citing Solyndra as an example of the unreliability of renewable energy. The Michigan RPS is 10 percent by 2015.[33] On wind power, Mackinac's senior environmental policy analyst Russ Harding has stated, "It is a given that households will pay for wind power through higher energy bills," and "Michigan legislators should repeal the renewable energy standard."[34]

Support of Privatization

Privatizing Prisons

Mackinac has been an ardent supporter of privatization of the correctional systems. According to Progress Michigan, the organization has released a series reports advocating privatization for the state with extensive "evidence" showing how the move towards private prisons would improve the financial state of Michigan.[22] These various reports state that privatization would alleviate problems such as overcrowding and improve overall quality of prisons. The reports fail to mention any possible downsides and work to push an agenda for funders who support private prisons.[35][36]

Privatizing Education

The Mackinac Center has focused a great deal of its scholarly efforts on advancing school choice programs in Michigan, drawing great criticism for attacking teachers unions and public schools in the process. A 2002 study authored by three professors in the educational field, two from Columbia and another from Arizona State University, reviewed Mackinac's previous 11 years of work on education policy and found that the "evidence presented in Mackinac Center studies is often weak and at times misleading." The authors added that they "hoped that this report has been helpful in revealing the shortcomings and the possible dangers inherent on [sic] basing public policy on the research of the Mackinac Center," and that Mackinac "is devoted to privatizing state institutions and to deregulating public education."[37]

The report analyzed the quality of Mackinac Center studies by assessing whether Mackinac’s published materials held up to peer-reviewed publication standards, adjusting assessment criteria to allow for the differences between original research, interpretive research, opinion essays and administrative and legislative guides. The report found that only one out of every 22 publications appropriately addressed its topic matter.[37]

Chilling Academic Freedom

In March 2011, as protests over Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's proposal to effectively end public sector collective bargaining continued to grow in Wisconsin, the Mackinac Center issued Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for three Michigan universities: the University of Michigan, Wayne State University and Michigan State University. The requests targeted labor studies faculty members at each school.[38] USA Today wrote that Mackinac's "demands for professors' e-mails about Wisconsin's public employee labor strife is causing an uproar among some who suggest the Freedom of Information Act requests aim to intimidate pro-labor dissenters and stifle academic freedom." [38]

The FOIA requests were similar to one submitted by the Republican Party of Wisconsin to University of Wisconsin-Madison historian William J. Cronon during the same week, after the professor had published a blog post questioning the role of the American Legislative Exchange Council in Governor Walker's anti-union legislation.[39] Paul Krugman of the New York Times wrote "there’s a clear chilling effect when scholars know that they may face witch hunts whenever they say things the G.O.P. doesn’t like."[40]

Like the Wisconsin GOP's request for Cronon's emails, Mackinac's request posed some concerns for university professors because the request could be an attempt to quell political opposition.[41] In a New York Times article, Director of Academic Freedom for the American Association of University Professors Greg Scholtz said, “We think all this will have a chilling effect on academic freedom. We’ve never seen FOIA requests used like this before.”[42]

The Overton Window: Moving Policies from "Unthinkable" to Enacted

The Overton Window is a tool used to visualize policy positions along the political spectrum. It was invented by Joseph P. Overton, a Mackinac Center scholar and Vice President, in the mid-1990s and has "gained national currency" since 2003.[43] In Mackinac's own description, the concept is designed to provide a spectrum which visualizes policies acceptable to the public with the various ends of the spectrum representing 'unthinkable' policies and the middle representing a policy that would be widely well received by the public. Any policy which would be deemed acceptable or desirable by the public is "in the window." The concept also holds that legislators can only act within the window out of their duty to constituents. According to Mackinac, the window is also finite and can be moved. Mackinac advocates for action by think tanks and other non-political figures which would "shift the window," bringing policies that would have previously been thought of as radical or unthinkable into the realm of possibility, allowing legislators to enact them. Consequently, policies once looked upon as acceptable or desirable would move out of favor with the public.[44]

Michigan Capitol Confidential

Michigan Capitol Confidential is a right-wing media project of the Mackinac Center and the Michigan affiliate of the Franklin Center (see above for more). It produces articles and blog posts intended to appear like those of traditional news sources, but with a demonstrated conservative bias and pushing a right wing agenda.

Staff, as of May 2023, include:[45]

  • James David Dickson, Managing Editor
  • Jamie Hope, Assistant Managing Editor
  • Jarrett Skorup, Contributing Editor
  • John LaPlante, Editor
  • Tim Cavanaugh, Senior Editor

In addition to Michigan Capitol Confidential, the Mackinac Center also publishes the bimonthly IMPACT magazine, which “provides updates on the Center’s projects, staff, leadership and other developments that impact the pursuit of our mission.”[46]

Ties to the Bradley Foundation

Between 1998 and 2020, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy received over $2,246,000 from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, with $1,325,000 just in the five year period from 2015 to 2020.

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: $175,000 to support general operations and a mobile app project. As of this grant Mackinac has received $1,357,500 from the Bradley Foundation. “Mackinac is among the most aggressive and, as the right to work victory shows, successful state think tanks in America. With many Bradley supported allies, Mackinac and its labor, legal, and educational efforts provide good programmatic and organizational models for the rest of the country.” (Source: Grant History Document 2014, Bradley IRS 990 2014, 2015). The Bradley funded app is called VoteSpotter, “it provides a concise, neutral, ‘plain English’ descriptions of specific legislative actions, in real time.”

2014: $50,000 to support general operations. “Bradley’s recent support of Mackinac has been styled as for its Labor and Education Project. Mackinac would also like to use some of any continued Bradley support for its Mackinac Center Legal Foundation (MCLF), the attorneys of which do most of their work on labor and education related matters. Mackinac’s director of labor policy is Vincent Vernuccio, who chairs a committee of the labor task force of the Bradley supported American Legislative Exchange Council and previously has worked at the Bradley supported Capital Research Center and Bradley supported Competitive Enterprise Institute… MCLF spent much of last year helping to defend the new right to work law, in policy and legal arguments, as well as in the larger public discourse in the state and nationally… MCLF is working with the Bradley supported National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation on this and several other legal matters surrounding implementation of right to work in Michigan… On education, among other things, Mackinac is analyzing mroe[sic] than 200 collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) in the state, covering some 75% of the state’s public school students, to see if and if so, how, they are adhering to the teacher tenure and evaluation policy changes. The results will be an important, in depth, one state version of the larger, national study of CBAs being done by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.” Support comes from more than 3,000 foundations, corporations and individuals. Its labor and education work has been funded by the Dow Foundation, Earhart Foundation, Herrick Foundation, and Chrysler.

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

Ties to the Koch Brothers

The Mackinac Center has received significant funding from the Koch family foundations as well as other funding from the Koch conduits DonorTrust and Donors Capital Fund. (See below).

In addition, the Mackinac Center is, as of October 2016, listed as a "partner organization" in the Charles Koch Institute's Liberty@Work program.[47]

Board member Richard Haworth has attended at least two Koch network summit meeting and was highlighted at the 2011 Vail summit for donating at least $1 million to Koch-approved causes.

Ties to DonorsTrust, a Koch Conduit

DonorsTrust is considered a "donor-advised fund," which means that it divides its funds into separate accounts for individual donors, who then recommend disbursements from the accounts to different non-profits. Funds like DonorsTrust are not uncommon in the non-profit sector, but they do cloak the identity of the original donors because the funds are typically distributed in the name of DonorsTrust rather than the original donors.[48] Very little was known about DonorsTrust until late 2012 and early 2013, when the Guardian and others published extensive reports on what Mother Jones called "the dark-money ATM of the conservative movement."[49][50]

The Mackinac Center for Public Policy received an aggregate of $1,494,000 in funding from DonorsTrust and Donors Capital Fund between 2010 and 2012.[51]

A report by the Center for Public Integrity exposes a number of DonorsTrust funders, many of which have ties to the Koch brothers. One of the most prominent funders is the Knowledge and Progress Fund, a Charles Koch-run organization and one of the group's largest known contributors, having donated nearly $9 million from 2005 to 2012. Other contributors known to have donated at least $1 million to DonorsTrust include the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation, Donald & Paula Smith Family Foundation, Searle Freedom Trust, Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, and the John M. Olin Foundation.[52]

Since its inception in 1999, DonorsTrust has been used by conservative foundations and individuals to discretely funnel nearly $400 million to like-minded think tanks and media outlets.[52] According to the organization's tax documents, in 2011, DonorsTrust contributed a total of $86 million to conservative organizations. Many recipients had ties to the State Policy Network (SPN), a wide collection of conservative state-based think tanks and media organizations that focus on shaping public policy and opinion. In 2013, the Center for Media and Democracy released a special report on SPN. Those who received DonorsTrust funding included media outlets such as the Franklin Center and the Lucy Burns Institute, as well as think tanks such as SPN itself, the Heartland Institute, Illinois Policy Institute, Independence Institute, Mackinac Center for Public Policy, South Carolina Policy Council, American Legislative Exchange Council, Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, and the Cascade Policy Institute.[53]

Koch Wiki

Charles Koch is the right-wing billionaire owner of Koch Industries. As one of the richest people in the world, he is a key funder of the right-wing infrastructure, including the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the State Policy Network (SPN). In SourceWatch, key articles on Charles Koch and his late brother David include: Koch Brothers, Americans for Prosperity, Stand Together Chamber of Commerce, Stand Together, Koch Family Foundations, Koch Universities, and I360.

Ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council

The Mackinac Center for Public Policy has been active in many "task forces" of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC):

The Mackinac Center also has ties to ALEC through its membership in the State Policy Network (SPN), which supports ALEC.[65] Please see SPN Ties to ALEC for more.

About ALEC
ALEC is a corporate bill mill. It is not just a lobby or a front group; it is much more powerful than that. Through ALEC, corporations hand state legislators their wishlists to benefit their bottom line. Corporations fund almost all of ALEC's operations. They pay for a seat on ALEC task forces where corporate lobbyists and special interest reps vote with elected officials to approve “model” bills. Learn more at the Center for Media and Democracy's, and check out breaking news on our site.

Ties to the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity

The Mackinac Center for Public Policy has hosted writers from the ALEC-connected Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, which screens potential reporters on their “free market” views as part of the job application process.[66] The Franklin Center funds reporters in over 40 states.[67] Despite their non-partisan description, many of the websites funded by the Franklin Center have received criticism for their conservative bias.[68][69] On its website, the Franklin Center claims it "provides 10 percent of all daily reporting from state capitals nationwide."[70]

Franklin Center Funding

Franklin Center Director of Communications Michael Moroney told the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) in 2013 that the source of the Franklin Center's funding "is 100 percent anonymous." But 95 percent of its 2011 funding came from DonorsTrust, a spin-off of the Philanthropy Roundtable that functions as a large "donor-advised fund," cloaking the identity of donors to right-wing causes across the country (CPI did a review of Franklin's Internal Revenue Service records).[71] Mother Jones called DonorsTrust "the dark-money ATM of the conservative movement" in a February 2013 article.[72] Franklin received DonorTrust's second-largest donation in 2011.[71]

The Franklin Center also receives funding from the Wisconsin-based Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation,[73] a conservative grant-making organization.[74]

The Franklin Center was launched by the Chicago-based Sam Adams Alliance (SAM),[75] a 501(c)(3) devoted to pushing free-market ideals. SAM gets funding from the State Policy Network,[76] which is partially funded by The Claude R. Lambe Foundation.[77] Charles Koch, one of the billionaire brothers who co-own Koch Industries, sits on the board of this foundation.[78] SAM also receives funding from the Rodney Fund.

See below for more.

Methods of Operation and Messaging

According to the Michigan Education Association, "The Mackinac Center receives attention not because of its objective scholarship but because it showers the media and governmental officials at all levels with publications designed to promote a conservative agenda. It is undoubtedly a very effective conduit for the policy wishes of its sponsors. It has shown great resourcefulness in creating new ways to spread its message. Between its presence in the Michigan Legislature, its many publications, news releases, its web site and conferences it might seem to be spreading its message in every way possible, but it continues to find new outlets"[1]:

  • Mackinac sponsored a contest in 2007 to reward student essays that best “exposes a scientific fallacy in a book, movie, song or other pop culture medium.”[79]
  • Mackinac’s project called “Students for a Free Economy” was created “to expose Michigan college students to free-market thinking” by introducing policy ideas to students “who may be unfamiliar with the ways that markets affect their lives and the issues they care about.”[80]
  • Mackinac's Freedom in Fiction Prize competition offers $10,000 to the new book author who creates "characters that demonstrate an appreciation for liberty, free markets and/or explicitly or symbolically oppose government oppression or restraints on their freedom." However, competition entries that “advance themes or characters who promote government-sponsored solutions; vilify entrepreneurship; degrade personal initiative, self-reliance and responsibility, or regurgitate discredited myths and misconceptions about liberty and free enterprise" would “not be favored.”[81]


The Mackinac Center was founded in 1987 with initial backing from the Lansing-based Cornerstone Foundation.[82] According to a report authored by Greg Steimel for the Michigan Education Association, "The insurance industry (primarily Citizen’s) provided initial funding, amounting to $306,382 during this period. Various officials of Dow Corning and Dow Chemical paid $335,986."[1]

According to Steimel, Mackinac’s “creation was driven by the insurance industry’s call for product liability reform, its interest in the Accident Fund, and by Dow Corning’s concern over silicone breast implant liability." [1]

According to documents Mackinac filed with the federal government that were reviewed by Steimel, Mackinac’s activities are tax exempt because it conducts "policy research on matters affecting Michigan residents" and proposes "approaches to public policy issues consistent with the traditional American values of free-markets, limited government, and respect for private property."[83]

In order to retain this tax exempt status, Steimel reports that Mackinac claims that it has not "attempted to influence national, state, or local legislation, including any attempt to influence public opinion on a legislative matter or referendum."[84][1]

The Mackinac Center is a member of the State Policy Network (SPN), a network of state-based think tanks patterned after the Heritage Foundation. Mackinac Center President Emeritus Lawrence Reed served for 15 years on the SPN Board of Directors.[1]


Mackinac Center Revenues 1998-2010, Source: IRS 990s, from MEA Report[1]

The Mackinac Center refuses to disclose who pays for its operations. When asked by Detroit’s Metro Times in 1996, the Center’s then-President Lawrence Reed said, "Our funding sources are primarily foundations … with the rest coming from corporations and individuals," but that "revealing our contributors would be a tremendous diversion."ref name="Guyette"/> However, some information about the Mackinac Center's funding can be gathered from its donors' tax filings.

Partial List of Mackinac Center Non-Profit Funders, 1993-2015:

Foundation Amount Donated Foundation's funding source Years
Aequus Foundation $4,500.00 Free Market/Christian Science Advocacy 2001-2010[1]
Alvin L Glick Foundation $26,000 2010, 2014-2018[85]
Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation $2,000 Community Foundation 2001-2010[1]
Atlas Economic Research Foundation $8,300 2016[85]
Barnabas Foundation $76,000 2010-2012, 2015-2017[85]
Beach Foundation $5,000 2001-2010[1]
Bradley Foundation, Lynde and Harry $1,096,375 Electronic and radio component heirs 1998-2015
Brandon Foundation, David A. $3,500 Former Domino's Pizza CEO 2001-2010[1]
Bretzlaff Foundation, Hilda E. $1,000 2001-2010[1]
Broad Foundation, Eli & Edythe $27,500 Homebuilding and retirement 2001-2010[1]
Coalition for Public Safety $25,000 2016[85]
Castle Rock Foundation $75,000.00 Coors founder's sons 2003-2011[86]
Charles G. Koch Foundation $1,190,151 Charles Koch 2001-2018
Chase Foundation of Virginia $465,000 JP Morgan banking heirs 2005-2009[86] 2013-2018[85]
Community Foundation for Muskegon County $5,000 2017[85]
Community Foundation for North Texas Inc. $1,000 2016[85]
DaimlerChrysler Corporation Fund $375,000 Automotive corporation 2001-2010[1]
Dart Foundation $90,000 Founder of Dart Container Corp 2001-2010[1], 2016[85]
DeVos Foundation, Daniel and Pamella $85,000 Amway founder son, CEO DP Fox Ventures 2001-2010[1]
DeVos Foundation, Dick & Betsy $175,000 Rep candidate for Gov./former State Rep. Chair 1995-2010[86]
DeVos Foundation, Douglas & Maria $120,000 Current Alticor (Amway) Co-CEO 2001-2010[1]
DeVos Foundation, Richard and Helen $180,000 Amway founder 1998-2011[86]
Donner Foundation, William H. $205,000 Heirs of Union Steel Co. founder 1998-2010[86]
Donors Capital Fund [$3,203,500] anonymous donor-advised fund 2007-2013[86]
DonorsTrust $7,600 anonymous donor-advised fund 2004-2010[86]
Douglas and Mary Kapnick Family Foundation $12,500 2015, 2017-2018[85]
Dow Foundation, Herbert H. and Grace A. $3,215,000 Dow Chemical founder widow 2001-2010[1]
Dunn's Foundation for the Advancement of Right Thinking $999,000 Investment company founder 2002-2011[86]
Earhart Foundation $1,938,300 White Star Oil heirs 1997-2010[86], 2010-2013[85]
Prince Foundation, Edgar and Elsa $220,000 Prince Automotive founder's widow 2001-2010[1], 2015-2016, 2018-2019[85]
EDP Foundation $1,850 2015-2016[85]
Edward and Elyse Rogers Family Foundation $2,000 2016-2017[85]
Edward C and Linda Dresner Levy Foundation CO Sterling FDN MGMT LLC $185,000 2018[85]
ExxonMobil Foundation $25,500 Oil corporation 2001-2002[86]
Fisher Foundation, Max M. and Marjorie S $1,000 Gas stations and real estate 2001-2010[1]
Garvey Kansas Foundation $800 2011-2018[85]
Gelman Educational Foundation $10,000 Gelman Instrument Company 2001-2010[1]
General Motors Foundation $30,000 Automotive corporation 2001-2010[1]
Gerstacker Foundation, Rollin M. $160,000 Dow Chemical Chairman (retired) 2001-2010[1]
Hanover Insurance Group Foundation $5,500 Insurance corporation 2001-2010[1]
Hansen Foundation, Robert and Marie $45,000 Cogen Technologies founder (energy cogeneration) 2003-2006[86]
Hayden Foundation $1,050 2014-2018[85]
Heritage Mark Foundation $7,000 Christian causes, emphasis on evangelism 2001-2010[1]
Herrick Foundation $2,150,000 Tecumseh Engines founder's son 2001-2010[1]
Hickory Foundation $135,000 Investment company founder's former wife 1999-2011[86], 2014-2016[85]
Hume Foundation, Jaquelin $830,000 Basic Vegetable company heir 1999-2011[86]
Humphreys Foundation, J. P $40,000 TAMKO roofing, composite decking founder's wife 2001-2010[1]
JM Foundation $115,000 Borden Milk Company heirs 1995-2006[86]
John and Judy Spoelhof Foundation $10,000 2018[85]
Pope Foundation, John William $5,500 Variety Wholesalers retail chain founder 2001-2010[1]
Kelly Services, Inc. Foundation, MI $3,500 Staffing corporation 2001-2010[1]
Koch Charitable Foundation, Charles G. $79,151 Koch Industries oil corporation co-owner 2005-2009[86]
Lambe Charitable Foundation, Claude R. $5,000 Koch Industries oil corporation heirs 2001[86]
Krieble Foundation, Vernon K. $1,500 Loctite Corporation heirs 2002[86]
Krieble Foundation Co Greenbergrosenblattkull and Bitsoli $110,000 2014-2017[85]
Lavins Dolores and Paul Foundation $5,000 2013,2015-2018[85]
Loprete Family Foundation $20,000 2016-2019[85]
Peters Foundation, Ruth and Lovett $525,000 Procter & Gamble heirs 2001-2010[1]
Merillat Foundation, Orville D. & Ruth A $395,000 Cabinet manufacturer founder's widow 1995-2011[86]
Mojo Foundation Co and Michael A. McGraw $60,000 2010-2012, 2017-2018[85]
Morey Foundation $170,000 2011[85]
National Christian Charitable Foundation Inc $94,850 2012-2017[85]
Perrigo Company Charitable Foundation $36,000 Over-the-counter drug manufacturer 2001-2010[86]
Reams Foundation $550,610 2011-2018[85]
Richard K Thompson Foundation $30,000 2015-2017[85]
Rodney Fund $2,450,831 Detroit Forming founder/Mackinac Board member 1998-2011[86]
Roe Foundation $515,000 Builder Marts of American founder 1998-2018[86]
Scaife Foundation, Sarah $100,000 Mellon industrial, oil and banking heirs 1999-2000[86]
Schiavone Family Foundation $10,000 Construction company investigated for organized crime connections 2001-2010[1]
Serf Foundation $7,000 2014-2017[85]
Staley Educational Foundation $1,000 2001-2010[1]
State Policy Network $278,989 2012-2018
Strosacker Foundation, Charles J $68,750 Dow Chemical Board member 2001-2010[1]
Schwab Charitable Fund $170,050 2014-2017[85]
Think Freely Media Inc $30,000 2015[85]
United Way of Washtenaw County $15,100 2014-2015[85]
US Justice Action Network $15,000 2017[85]
Van Andel Foundation, Jay and Betty $20,000 Amway founder widow 2001-2010[1]
Walton Family Foundation $300,000 Walmart heirs 2000-2002[86]
William and Martha Ford Fund $7,000 2015-2018[85]
William S and Ann Atherton Foundation $2,000 2014-2015[85]
Woodford Foundation $4,500 2010-2018[85]

In Strategic Grantmaking, Foundations and the School Privatization Movement, Richard Cohen of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy estimates that one-half to two-thirds of all corporate grant-making is “made through the CEO’s office or the marketing department, for which there is no public disclosure requirement.”[87]

The Media Matters Action Network has identified the organization's all-time biggest funder as the Rodney Foundation, an organization founded by Mackinac Center board member James Rodney.

Projects, Publications, and Related Websites

The Mackinac Center for Public Policy runs the following affiliated sites and publications:

Core Financials


  • Total Revenue: $15,562,407
  • Total Expenses: $10,121,925
  • Net Assets: $16,606,570


  • Total Revenue: $6,974,263
  • Total Expenses: $9,421,593
  • Net Assets: $10,877,069


  • Total Revenue: $8,585,785
  • Total Expenses: $9,891,359
  • Net Assets: $13,121,408


  • Total Revenue: $11,321,456
  • Total Expenses: $8,408,449
  • Net Assets: $14,081,488


  • Total Revenue: $8,513,761
  • Total Expenses: $6,620,239
  • Net Assets: $11,234,925


  • Total Revenue: $4,765,507
  • Total Expenses: $6,608,146
  • Net Assets: $9,185,487


  • Total Revenue: $4,972,208
  • Total Expenses: $4,351,888
  • Net Assets: $10,536,151


  • Total Revenue: $5,593,469
  • Total Expenses: $4,339,266
  • Net Assets: $9,783,041


  • Total Revenue: $3,222,455
  • Total Expenses: $4,395,247
  • Net Assets: $8,451,422


  • Total Revenue: $5,778,257.00
  • Total Expenses: $3,925,505.00
  • Net Assets: $9,523,575.00


  • Total Revenue: $3,511,159.00
  • Total Expenses: $3,401,252.00
  • Net Assets: $7,581,106.00


  • Total Revenue: $3,310,018.00
  • Total Expenses: $3,377,168.00
  • Net Assets: $7,345,742.00



As of May 2023:[101]

  • Dale A. Anderson, Information Systems Administrator
  • Dixon Anderson, Intern
  • Taylor Anderson, Outreach Manager
  • Joshua Antonini, Research Analyst
  • Victoria Aultman, Intern
  • Jordan Barker, Intern
  • Patricia J. Benner, Vice President for Operations
  • Isaiah Bierbrauer, Information Systems Developer
  • David Bondy, Digital & Video Content Manager
  • Christine M. Bowerson, Senior Director of Operations
  • Nathan Burgard, Donor Relations
  • Rebekah Carlson, Advancement Associate
  • Tim Cavanaugh, Senior Editor
  • Sandra Darland, Director of Events
  • Michelle Deeth, Operations Office Assistant
  • Stephen Delie, Director of Labor Policy
  • James David Dickson, Managing Editor of Michigan Capitol Confidential
  • Stephen J. Frick, Manager of Information Systems
  • David Guenthner, Vice President for Government Affairs
  • CarolAnne Guillemette, Director of Advancement
  • Jason Hayes, Director of Energy and Environmental Policy
  • James M. Hohman, Director of Fiscal Policy
  • Jamie A. Hope, Assistant Managing Editor of Michigan Capitol Confidential
  • JoAnne Kelley, Operations Manager
  • Lindsay B. Killen, Workers for Opportunity Senior National Advisor
  • Michael D. LaFaive, Senior Director of the Morey Fiscal Policy Initiative
  • John LaPlante, Contributing Editor and Senior Fellow
  • Joseph G. Lehman, President
  • Molly Macek, Director of Education Policy
  • Jennifer Majorana, Director of Donor Communications
  • Kara Malkowski, Operations Office Assistant
  • Mick McArt, Graphic Designer & Creative Projects Manager
  • Beth Meylan, Assistant to the President
  • Joe Milligan, Director of Strategic Partnerships
  • Cami Pendell, Director of Legislative Affairs
  • Michael J. Reitz, Executive Vice President
  • Ryan Rickel, Director of Strategic Partnerships
  • Joseph Rupert, Advancement Manager
  • Lindsey Severson, Administrative Assistant
  • Jarrett Skorup, Vice President for Marketing and Communications
  • Christopher Smith, Database Manager
  • Malik Smith, Intern
  • Betsy Thraves, Advancement Liaison
  • Michael Van Beek, Director of Research
  • Melissa Van Meter, Advancement Assistant
  • F. Vincent Vernuccio, Senior Fellow
  • Jim Walker, Vice President for Advancement
  • Holly Wetzel, Director of Public Relations
  • Derk Wilcox, Senior Attorney
  • Patrick J. Wright, Vice President for Legal Affairs

Former Staff

  • Ilia Anderson, Graphic Design Assistant
  • Kristin Anderson, Events Manager
  • Dan Armstrong, Marketing and Communications Team Leader
  • Christina Bolema, Communications Intern
  • Evan Carter, Reporter for Michigan Capital Confidential
  • Justin Davis, Multimedia Producer
  • Zachary Dawes, Research Intern
  • Luke Derheim, Intern
  • Derek Draplin, Reporter for Michigan Capitol Confidential
  • Lindsey Dodge, Editor
  • Anne Schieber Dykstra, Community Engagement Manager
  • Burton Folsom, Senior Fellow in Economic Education
  • Beth Hanson, Operations Office Assistant
  • Ashley Keimach, Regional Director of Strategic Partnerships
  • Amy Kellogg, Assistant to the President
  • Josiah Killmeyer, Research Intern
  • Andrew Koehlinger, VoteSpotter Project Director
  • Nathan Lehman, Research Intern
  • David Littmann, Senior Economist
  • Manny Lopez, Managing Editor, Michigan Capitol Confidential
  • Chantal Lovell, Media Relations Manager
  • Sharon Millerwise, Administrative Assistant
  • John Mozena, Vice President for Marketing and Communications
  • Ted O’Neil, Media Relations Manager
  • Don Orrico, Regional Director of Strategic Partnerships
  • Kahryn Riley, Policy Analyst
  • Geneva Ruppert, Communications Associate
  • Anne Schieber, Senior Investigative Analyst
  • Lorie Shane, Managing Director of Advancement
  • Thomas Shull, Senior Director of Research Quality
  • Dane Skorup, Research Intern
  • Audrey Spalding, Education Policy Analyst
  • Jack Spencer, Capitol Affairs Specialist
  • Zachary Woodman, Research Intern

Board of Directors

As of May 2023:[102]

  • Jim Barrett
  • Daniel Graf
  • Richard G. Haworth
  • J.C. Huizenga
  • Joseph G. Lehman, President
  • Edward C. Levy Jr.
  • Rodney M. Lockwood Jr., Vice Chairman
  • Joseph P. Maguire, Treasurer
  • Richard D. McLellan, Secretary
  • Clifford W. Taylor, Chairman

Former Board Members

  • Dick Antonini, Foremost Insurance
  • Peter Cook, Great Lakes Mazda, major Republican campaign donor
  • Dick DeVos, Amway, Republican Candidate for Governor
  • Joseph Fitzsimmons
  • Dulce Fuller
  • Paul Gadola (Judge, Reagan Campaign Chair, Federalist Society)
  • Kent Herrick, Vice Chairman
  • Gregory Kaza, Former Republican State Representative
  • R. Douglas Kinnan
  • Mara M. Letica, Executive Vice President and General Counsel, Letica Corp
  • D. Joseph Olson
  • Lawrence W. Reed, Mackinac Center President Emeritus
  • Margaret Riecker, Republican National Committee, Dow Foundation
  • John Riecker, Hillsdale College and Comerica Bank, d. 2008
  • Linda Rodney, Managing Partner at LK Rodney Enterprises, LLC.
  • James Rodney, Chairman of the Board, Detroit Forming
  • William Rosenberg , Bush Presidential Campaign, Reagan, Milliken and Engler administrations
  • Robert Teeter, RNC Chairman, Pollster for Nixon, Ford, Bush campaign
  • Gail Torreano, Chief of Staff to Sen. Kevin Engler
  • Philip Van Dam, US Attorney under Ford
  • Charles Van Eaton, Hillsdale College

Board of Scholars

As of May 2023:[103]

Scholars with Academic Positions

  • Dr. Donald L. Alexander, Western Michigan University
  • Dr. Bradley J. Birzer, Hillsdale College
  • Dr. Peter J. Boettke, George Mason University
  • Dr. Theodore Bolema, Wichita State University
  • Alexander C. Cartwright, Ferris State University
  • Michael J. Clark, Hillsdale College
  • Matt Coffey, Central Michigan University
  • Dan Crane, University of Michigan Law School
  • Christopher C. Douglas, Ph.D., University of Michigan-Flint
  • Dr. Jefferson G. Edgens, University of Wyoming
  • Ross B. Emmett, Arizona State University
  • Sarah Estelle, Hope College
  • Hugo Eyzaguirre, Northern Michigan University
  • Tawni H. Ferrarini, Lindenwood University
  • John Grether, Kettering University
  • David Hebert, Aquinas College
  • Dr. Michael J. Hicks, Ball State University
  • Prof. Harry Hutchison, George Mason University School of Law
  • Dr. Dale Matcheck, Northwood University
  • Dr. Glenn A. Moots, Northwood University
  • Todd Nesbit, Ph.D., Ball State University
  • Dr. Mark J. Perry, University of Michigan-Flint
  • Dr. Howard S. Schwartz, Oakland University
  • Bradley A. Smith, Capital University Law School
  • Daniel J. Smith, Middle Tennessee State University
  • Chris W. Surprenant, University of New Orleans
  • Jason E. Taylor, Central Michigan University
  • Dr. John C. Taylor, Wayne State University
  • Dr. Richard Vedder, Ohio University
  • Harry C. Veryser Jr., University of Detroit-Mercy
  • Dr. Gary L. Wolfram, Hillsdale College

Scholars Outside Academia

  • Shikha Dalmia, Mercatus Center
  • Dr. Burton W. Folsom, Senior Fellow in Economic Education
  • Dr. Ormand G. Hook, Mecosta Osceola ISD
  • Dr. David H. Janda, M.D., Institute for Preventative Sports Medicine
  • Annette Kirk, Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal
  • David L. Littmann, Senior Economist
  • Charles Meiser, Lake Superior State University (ret.)
  • Dr. George Nastas III, Marketing Consultants
  • Dr. John Pafford, Northwood University (ret.)
  • Lawrence W. Reed, President Emeritus
  • Gregory F. Rehmke, Economic Thinking
  • Stephen J. Safranek, J.D., Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, Inc.
  • James M. Sheehan, SunTrust Robinson Humphrey
  • Father Robert A. Sirico, Acton Institute
  • Jürgen O. Skoppek, Michigan Supreme Court
  • John D. Walter Jr., Dow Corning Corporation

Staff Compensation

The Mackinac Center spends a significant part of its annual budget on staff compensation, with executive Vice President Joseph Lehman reporting an increase in his salary every year from 2008-2012. In 2012, Lehman received an annual salary of $197,967, with an estimated bonus of $10,076 from the organization and related organizations. In 2012, the Center spent over $2 million of its nearly $4.4 million budget on staff compensation and benefits.[104]

Contact Information

Mackinac Center for Public Policy
140 West Main Street
Midland, Michigan 48640
P.O. Box 568
Phone: (989) 631-0900
Phone: (800) 22-IDEAS
Fax: (989) 631-0964

Resources and Articles

IRS Form 990 Filings









Related SourceWatch Articles

SPN Political Activity
Overton Window
My Pay, My Say
Cornerstone Foundation
Lawrence Reed
Roger Meiners
Russ Harding
Richard K Vedder

Related PRWatch Articles

External Resources


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