November 19, 2007
FIFTY FLOWERS BLOOM
Conservative think tanks — mini–Heritage Foundations — at the state level
JOHN J. MILLER
When word of Al Gore’s Nobel Peace Prize reached a gathering of free-market wonks at the Portland Marriott in Maine on October 12, it met with a mix of mockery and disbelief. “Now he joins the ranks of Jimmy Carter and Yasser Arafat,” muttered one attendee in a hallway. They were able to laugh it off in part because they were in the presence of Trent Seibert of the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, a.k.a. “the Al Gore guy.” A day earlier, he had shared his story with them.
On a Sunday evening last February, Seibert found himself watching the Oscars. “When Gore won his award for best documentary, I decided that first thing in the morning, I would look up the public records for his electric bills,” he says. By the middle of Monday afternoon, just as Gore was supposed to be enjoying a victory lap for An Inconvenient Truth, his global-warming movie, Seibert’s inquiry had exposed Gore as an energy glutton whose Nashville mansion devoured twice as much electricity in one month as the average U.S. household used in a whole year. “Gore deserves a gold statue in hypocrisy,” said a press release from the Tennessee Center.
It was a triumph of investigative reporting. Yet the story didn’t break on the pages of the New York Times or before the cameras of 60 Minutes. Instead, it owed everything to a member of the State Policy Network, a consortium of right-leaning think tanks that crusade for limited government in state capitals rather than Washington. Just a few years ago, the Tennessee Center existed only in the mind of its twenty-something founder, Drew Johnson. Today, however, it’s a rising star in a growing movement. At a time when the Right is still reeling from a string of political defeats and bracing for the possibility of more, the Tennessee Center and its sister organizations may serve as a source of future success. They not only take on political adversaries, but also incubate many of the policy ideas that animate conservatism.
A generation ago, there were only a handful of conservative and libertarian think tanks — and most of them, such as the Heritage Foundation and Cato Institute, concentrated on the White House and Congress. Following the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, however, many Republicans began to promote the “New Federalism,” in which Washington would cede some of its authority to officials at the state and local level.
The late South Carolina businessman Thomas A. Roe, an occasional member of Reagan’s “kitchen cabinet,” supported this trend, but also anticipated a new challenge: Bureaucrats in Albany, Austin, and Sacramento weren’t necessarily better than those in Washington. In a conversation with Reagan, Roe mentioned that there ought to be an effort to keep them honest — something like a Heritage Foundation in each of the states. The president replied with a suggestion: “Do something about it.” Roe took his advice. In 1986, he founded the South Carolina Policy Council. Around the same time, similar groups were forming in Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, and elsewhere. They began to meet at the Madison Hotel in Washington and called themselves the Madison Group. In 1992, Roe bankrolled the creation of the State Policy Network, an umbrella organization to help them grow.
Today, SPN is bigger than ever before. Its membership boasts 52 think tanks in 45 states. Their combined annual revenues add up to roughly $40 million. “We’re all comrades in arms,” says Carl Helstrom, SPN’s chairman and executive director of the JM Foundation, which provides grants to SPN members. In October, at SPN’s annual conference, president Tracie Sharp announced a new initiative to expand think-tank revenues by $50 million over the next five years.
They’re going to need it: The Democracy Alliance, led by mega-rich liberals such as George Soros and Tim Gill, has devoted tens of millions of dollars to left-wing causes and candidates, including many on the state level. Last year, Gill’s spending in particular helped Colorado Democrats sweep into office.
Members of SPN don’t become directly involved with candidates. As nonprofit groups, they’re prohibited from overt electioneering. Yet they help develop many of the ideas that rightward candidates can run on. In 1990, when reform-minded Republican John Engler sought the governorship of Michigan, much of his brain trust resided at the Mackinac Center, one of the oldest and largest of the state think tanks, with a budget of more than $4 million. “People used to say that the Mackinac Center was a front for Engler,” says Joe Olson, one of the think tank’s founders. “Later on, they said that Engler was a front for the Mackinac Center.” Though the relationship frayed over the course of Engler’s three terms, they achieved a great deal together, such as promoting charter schools and competitive contracting. Since then, Engler has left Lansing, but the Mackinac Center continues to fight for its principles — most recently by proposing alternatives to a massive tax hike just approved by the state’s Democrats.
Engler isn’t the only public official to have formed an alliance with a state think tank. A handful of successful politicians have used SPN organizations as political springboards. In the House of Representatives, three prominent conservatives used to run state think tanks: Jeff Flake of the Goldwater Institute in Arizona, Mike Pence of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, and Tom Tancredo of the Independence Institute in Colorado. “It was a formative experience for me,” says Pence.
Yet candidate training is at best a byproduct of what these think tanks exist to do — and the most adept SPN members don’t sit around and wait for politicians to discover them. “Research is our main purpose,” says Darcy Olsen, president of the Goldwater Institute. “We’re in the business of applied policy.” The institute is widely credited with several important free-market achievements in Arizona, such as a law that lets disabled kids and those in foster care take advantage of school vouchers and another that offers tax credits for private-school scholarships.
In 2004, to the exasperation of business and political leaders, Arizona voters rejected a ballot measure that would have allowed public universities to own stock in private companies. “I am disappointed,” said Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat. “There was really no organized opposition, except from the Goldwater Institute.” The think tank didn’t run an ad campaign. Instead, it merely issued a report on the dangers of letting arms of the state government compete with private enterprise. Last year, Olsen won SPN’s annual Roe Award for her leadership.
This summer, the Goldwater Institute launched a litigation center, hiring school-choice legal eagle Clint Bolick to run it. “We realized that on some issues we needed to go to court or we wouldn’t be able to change anything,” says Olsen. Although a few public-interest law firms focus on state-level issues, Bolick’s outfit is the first to be housed permanently within an SPN think tank. It has already sued the Arizona state government for trying to regulate charter-school curricula and using taxpayer dollars to fund the construction of a shopping mall.
This is by no means the first time a state think tank has lawyered up. Seven years ago, the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, based in the state of Washington, decided to challenge the Washington Education Association’s practice of using compulsory union dues for political purposes without obtaining permission from workers. “We saw it as a simple campaign-finance violation,” says Bob Williams, Evergreen’s founder and president. It turned into a protracted legal battle that cost Evergreen more than $1 million. The investment paid off last June, when the Supreme Court ruled against the teachers union in a decision that may be applied to other states with paycheck-protection laws. “The unanimous verdict was a stunning victory for the [Evergreen Freedom Foundation] and a crushing defeat” for the union, said an editorial in the Olympian, a daily newspaper in Washington’s capital.
As with most SPN members, the bulk of Evergreen’s financial support comes from individual contributions. “Corporations won’t touch us because we take on the unions,” says Williams. Despite these obstacles, Evergreen has more than doubled in size since filing the case. Its current budget is $2.5 million and its staff of 24 includes one person who works exclusively on helping other SPN groups implement their own legal strategies.
SUCCESSES QUIET AND LOUD
Most SPN success stories fail to attract attention outside the borders of their states, but they nevertheless represent advances for free-market public policies. Earlier this year, Missouri became the first state to let small-business owners make pre-tax contributions to the individual health plans of their employees — a reform that provides more consumer choice and flexibility in health care and keeps the government at arm’s length. The bill probably wouldn’t have been written or passed without the involvement of the two-year-old Show Me Institute, based in St. Louis.
From the start, SPN has demanded that members share their publications with each other — a rule with roots in the pre-Internet age of snail mail. “We trade information all the time and borrow ideas from each other,” says Gary Palmer of the Alabama Policy Institute. Last year, Michael Sanera of North Carolina’s John Locke Foundation read a Mackinac Center report on government-owned golf courses in Michigan. “I decided that we should look into it here,” he says. Sanera discovered 35 of them in his own state and wrote a report recommending their privatization. When the city council of Sanford approved a new business tax earlier this year, opponents were able to point to Sanera’s research on the municipal golf course, which was losing about as much money as the new tax was meant to generate. “The Locke Foundation was a great resource,” says Mike Stone, a city councilman who voted against the tax increase. “It provided a lot of information and background material.” Several candidates for Sanford’s city council are now campaigning to repeal the tax.
Sometimes the Lockeans make national news. Remember the bird’s-eye photo of the 28,200-square-foot mansion owned by Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, who spends most of his time hectoring audiences about inequality in the “two Americas”? The guy who snapped the picture was Don Carrington, executive editor of Carolina Journal, an organ of the Locke Foundation. He’s also a skydiver. Carrington had been shooting photos from the air to document stories he’d written on the questionable land deals of Mike Easley, North Carolina’s Democratic governor. When he received a tip about the huge Edwards estate, he took to the skies. In January, the Drudge Report carried his photo and the online traffic nearly crippled the Locke Foundation’s website.
Not every member of SPN is a top-flight think tank with a target as big as Gore or Edwards. Some struggle for attention and influence, owing to lousy leadership or a poor political climate. Five states have no SPN presence at all, and one of them is Louisiana — an unfortunate vacuum, given the recent election of the GOP’s Bobby Jindal to the governorship. He’s precisely the type of idea-fueled politician who could benefit from a partnership. (The other states without SPN think tanks are Delaware, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming.) And to put things in further perspective, the combined revenues of the existing wonk shops are still smaller than the Heritage Foundation, whose budget this year is $50 million.
Where SPN members are energetic and effective, however, they can drive liberals absolutely batty — to the point of calling for boycotts and de facto censorship. In September, Rocky Mountain News columnist Jason Salzman bemoaned the influence of Colorado’s Independence Institute and its $1.5 million budget: “You don’t have to be much of a news junkie to know that the Independence Institute is in the local news way too often.” He went on to urge reporters, who aren’t normally known for their free-market biases, to avoid citing the group and its scholars. “The left-wingers sure don’t like it when we get our word out,” says Jon Caldara, the think tank’s chief. “We must be saying some very dangerous things about freedom.”