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How Conservative State “Think Tanks” Will Spin ALEC’s 2016 Agenda

A shadowy network of state-based, right-wing think tanks and advocacy groups will convene with Koch operatives.

(Photo: Money via Shutterstock)

This week, a shadowy network of state-based, right-wing think tanks and advocacy groups will convene with Koch operatives and other big donors in Grand Rapids, Michigan to coordinate their 2016 agenda for all 50 states.

The State Policy Network (SPN) is a network of state-branded groups, like the Civitas Institute in North Carolina and the Goldwater Institute in Arizona, which appear to be independent yet actually are operating from the same national playbook. SPN plays a key role in driving the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) agenda, particularly by providing academic-like cover for ALEC’s corporate-friendly policies.

Union-busting, attacks on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, privatization of higher education, and other items are on the SPN meeting agenda this week, offering a preview of the right-wing state legislative strategy for 2016.

The importance of the sprawling SPN network cannot be understated. SPN and its affiliates take in more than $80 million cumulatively each year, and documents provided to The Guardian in 2013 show that SPN coordinates fundraising for the supposedly “independent” groups, from Maine’s Heritage Policy Center to Kentucky’s Bluegrass Institute.

A significant chunk of the funding for SPN and its affiliates flows through Donors Trust and Donors Capitol, which are “donor-advised funds” that give funders an added layer of anonymity. Known funders of SPN and its affiliates include a number of usual suspects, such as the billionaire Koch brothers and the Wisconsin-based Bradley Foundation, as well as big tobacco companies like Altria/Phillip Morris and telecommunications players like AT&T and Time Warner. SPN’s president, Tracie Sharp, has noted that “grants are driven by donor intent,” and that “the donors have a very specific idea of what they want to happen.”

This week’s meeting will take place at a resort named for Amway, the company that fueled the enormous wealth of the DeVos family, which has underwritten parts of the SPN-ALEC agenda.

Coordinated, National Effort Advances ALEC Agenda

ALEC and SPN are, for the most part, interconnected, which is little wonder, given that SPN was housed with ALEC at the Heritage Foundation when it was founded in the late 1980s. Indeed, the topics discussed at this week’s SPN meeting overlap significantly with the agenda at ALEC’s annual meeting in July.

Where ALEC connects lobbyists with state legislators and promotes corporate-drafted model legislation, SPN affiliates provide the ground support. After an ALEC bill is introduced in a state, the SPN affiliates create the appearance of in-state support for the effort, generating “studies” or “news” stories purporting to show the benefits of the legislation or drumming up a façade of grassroots support.

The enactment of right-to-work in Wisconsin this year provides a good example of this coordinated effort.

Wisconsin ALEC politicians introduced a word-for-word copy of the ALEC “Right to Work Act” in early February. A week later, one of the SPN affiliates, the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (WPRI), published a “study” from ALEC Scholar Richard Vedder purporting to show that right-to-work would be great for Wisconsin’s economy. (The study was very similar to reports that Vedder penned for SPN affiliates in Minnesota and Ohio).

David Koch’s Americans for Prosperity – an SPN associate member – dropped at least $1 million in pro-right to work TV ads. Groups associated with SPN, like Michigan’s Mackinac Center and the Heritage Foundation, testified in favor of the Wisconsin bill. And SPN member the MacIver Institute was “a leading voice during Wisconsin’s battle to become the 25th Right to Work state in the country,” according to a recent SPN publication.

And throughout the Wisconsin right to work debate, the Koch-connected Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity – an SPN associate member that operates state-based “news” sites on the platform – published stories on its “Wisconsin Watchdog” website boosting right to work and deriding protesters.

All of those same groups – ALEC, WPRI, AFP, Mackinac Center, Heritage, MacIver Institute, Franklin Center/ – will be represented at this week’s meeting, as will representatives of the funders that backed these policies, like the Charles G. Koch Foundation and Koch Industries’ lobbying arm.

Right to work in Michigan followed a similar pattern in 2013, with the SPN member in the state, the Mackinac Center, playing a key role in laying the groundwork for the measure and promoting the word-for-word ALEC right to work act. Later that year, SPN singled out the Mackinac Center’s president, Joseph Lehman, for its highest award, the “Roe Award,” for his group’s role in making Michigan a right to work state. (Notably, despite being credited for this legislative victory, Mackinac told the IRS it did zero lobbying in 2013.)

As the failure of Scott Walker’s presidential bid indicated, bashing unions may have limited resonance among the electorate – but it remains a top priority for big donors, and in turn, remains a top priority for SPN and ALEC.

SPN has several anti-union sessions at this week’s meeting, including one called “Labor Unions in the Modern Workplace” featuring Rebecca Friedrichs, the plaintiff in the upcoming US Supreme Court case Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association that could eviscerate public sector unions.

Attacking the EPA Clean Power Plan

A major priority for ALEC and SPN in recent months has been pushing back on the Environmental Protection Agency’s “Clean Power Plan,” which is a set of rules limiting carbon dioxide pollution from coal plants.

This week, SPN will hold two separate sessions attacking the Clean Power Plan rules, with presentations from groups like the Koch-backed Independent Women’s Forum and the coal industry front group American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity.

SPN member the Beacon Hill Institute has been central to the anti-Clean Power Plan effort, generating studies purporting to show the costs of the EPA plan – but without actually analyzing the plan. In February, The Guardian revealed that the notorious PR flak Richard Berman (called “Dr. Evil” by 60 Minutes) was secretly funding the Beacon Hill Institute studies, which were released and promoted by SPN member think tanks.

So far in 2015, Beacon Hill has released seven “studies” purporting to show the impact of the Clean Power Plan rules in seven states, in partnership with seven SPN member think tanks. As Media Matters has described, those include:

  • Iowa: Public Interest Institute, February 2015
  • Louisiana: Pelican Institute for Public Policy, February 2015
  • New Mexico: The Rio Grande Foundation, January 2015
  • North Carolina: The Civitas Institute, January 2015
  • South Carolina: Palmetto Promise Institute (formerly Palmetto Policy Forum), February 2015
  • Virginia: Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy, March 2015
  • Wisconsin: MacIver Institute for Public Policy, January 2015

ALEC has also been organizing a state-level campaign against the rules. The group organized legislators to press their state attorneys general into joining litigation backed by the energy industry that challenges the regulations, adopted a model resolution attacking the plan, and adopted a model bill that would create new hurdles for the Plan’s implementation. At its most recent meeting, ALEC adopted the “Environmental Impact Litigation Act,” a bill that effectively allows corporate interests to hire a state’s Department of Justice as their own private attorneys. The bill creates a corporate-backed fund for states to sue over federal environmental laws – such as the Clean Power Plan – guided by an “environmental impact litigation advisory committee” made up of political appointees and representatives of “individuals representing agriculture and energy trade commissions.”

Privatizing Higher Ed

Another session, called “Winning the War of Ideas in Higher Education: a Toolkit for State Reformers,” is sponsored by the Pope Center for Higher Education, one of the many North Carolina-based institutions founded and funded by billionaire discount store magnate Art Pope, a close associate of the Koch brothers and an ALEC alum. Pope is credited with flipping North Carolina’s legislature to Republican control in the 2010 elections, and bankrolling Governor Pat McCrory’s win in 2012 (for which Pope was rewarded by being appointed budget director). Pope is also on the board of the Bradley Foundation and previously chaired David Koch’s Americans for Prosperity Foundation.

This session is described in the SPN agenda as informing attendees “how your state can improve higher education- by limiting spending, fostering competition and protecting students’ civil liberties. Successful reforms in North Carolina can be a model for your state.”

By most measures, North Carolina is hardly a model for higher education policy. Since 2008, the state has cut its higher education spending per-student by 25 percent, according to the Center on Budget and Public Priorities, and tuition has gone up by nearly 35 percent over the same period. The state and university have additionally limited financial assistance for low-income students.

Yet according to those leading the presentation – Jay Schalin and Jenna Robinson of the John W. Pope Center – the crisis in higher education isn’t cost or access. As The Nation reported earlier this year, Schalin says the main problem with higher education “has to do with the ideas that are being discussed and promoted,” those being “multiculturalism, collectivism, left-wing post-modernism.”

North Carolina is a “model” for SPN because it is ground zero for the right-wing attach on academia. Art Pope’s network has led the charge not only to slash education funding in North Carolina – under the theory that higher education is an economic good, and that “subsidized” low tuition distorts the market – but also to shut down programs housed at the university that advocated for the poor and promoted civil engagement, and to instead create privately-funded education programs that advance the ideology of billionaire donors like Pope.

Earlier this year, the Pope Center for Higher Education released a report entitled “Renewal in the University” celebrating privately-funded centers that promote “the morality of capitalism” in order to balance “academia’s gradual purging” of courses dedicated to “liberty, capitalism, and traditional perspectives.”

It looks an awful lot like a calculated quest for power: cut public funding for universities, creating a financial shortfall, making it impossible for universities to turn-down funding from billionaires like the Popes and Kochs – even when strings are attached. It is a slow means of privatizing universities, of giving billionaires the ability to pull the strings at public universities, and to reshape academia in order to advance a personal ideological agenda.

Freeing the Poor and Learning From Amway

Other sessions include:

  • The Lessons from Amway for Nonprofits,” modeled after the multi-level marketing scheme that made the DeVos family billionaires. The DeVos’ are big funders of some SPN member organizations as well as school privatization efforts, and Betsy DeVos herself will be speaking at SPN on how “to revolutionize the country’s antiquated education model.”
  • A workshop attacking municipal broadband (a longtime ALEC priority) sponsored by telecom industry front group “Coalition for the New Economy.” The session will be moderated by a representative of the “news” site Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity/
  • “Freeing the Poor from the Government Poverty Trap through Policy Solutions and Private Services,” which will include a presentation from the Foundation for Government Accountability, the Florida-based group best known for promoting welfare drug testing laws that critics say humiliate the poor.
  • A session highlighting a purported “lack of respect for job creators in many state policies,” and a discussion of “how to build respect for job creators, remove barriers to employment and address this foremost concern of Americans.”
  • Case Studies in Effective Executive Branch Outreach,” with presentations from groups like the Illinois Policy Institute and Ohio’s Buckeye Institute.
  • Free Market Approaches to Lowering Health Care Costs and Improving Access,” with a presentation from the Cato Institute’s Michael Cannon, who developed the challenge to the Affordable Care Act that was rejected by the US Supreme Court in King v. Burwell.
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