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What began as an offhanded suggestion by Ronald Reagan to Thomas Roe (a member of his "kitchen cabinet") in the 1980s, has evolved into an army of at least 63 state-based groups pushing conservative public policy issues as members of the powerful and well-coordinated State Policy Network (SPN).
Although many of the groups involved claim to be non-partisan and independent, an investigation by the watchdog group, the Madison, Wisconsin-based Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) has found "that SPN and its member think tanks are major drivers of the right-wing, ALEC-backed agenda in state houses nationwide, with deep ties to the Koch brothers and the national right-wing network of funders, all while reporting little or no lobbying activities."
In September, the Arlington, Virginia-based State Policy Network held its 21st annual meeting in Oklahoma City. According to CMD's report EXPOSED: The State Policy Network -- The Powerful Right-Wing Network Helping to Hijack State Politics and Government, the meeting "featured a legislative agenda that included privatizing and profitizing schools, attacking the pensions negotiated for public workers, limiting the ability of states to tax, ending collective bargaining rights of workers, cutting federal spending out of state budgets, and thwarting the Affordable Care Act."
As might be expected the Koch Brothers have their imprint writ large over the SPN: The September event was attended by "representatives from Koch Industries, the Charles Koch Institute, and Charles Koch Foundation, and other the Koch-funded groups such as David Koch's Americans for Prosperity, Generation Opportunity, and the Association for American Innovation, which is now called 'Freedom Partners' and is funded to an unknown extent by the fortunes of the billionaire Koch brothers, housed in the same building as other Koch front groups, staffed by Koch operatives, and stacked with a board full of Koch insiders."
Building Heritage-like foundations in every state
According to the conservative publication, National Review, Reagan, who in 1980, benefited greatly from the Heritage Foundation's 3,000-page, 20-volume set of policy recommendations called "Mandate for Leadership," supposedly suggested to Roe that he develop "something like a Heritage Foundation in each of the states."
In1986, Roe founded the South Carolina Policy Council and soon several other conservative groups – which saw themselves as think tanks -- were formed in Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, and elsewhere. According to CMD's SourceWatch, "Representatives of those groups met at the Madison Hotel in Washington, D.C. and started to call themselves the 'Madison Group.' SPN was formally created as an 'umbrella organization' to provide 'advisory services' -- bankrolled by Roe and other conservative funders -- in 1992."
Writing in the Summer/Fall 1999 edition of Political Research Associates' The Public Eye, Frederick Clarkson pointed out that "The network of state-level think tanks became an integral part of the Right's infrastructure of organizations. ...Like the Heritage Foundation itself, the groups are deeply engaged in the partisan legislative and electoral process, and their research is generally geared to affect political outcomes."
Key findings from Exposed
EXPOSED: The State Policy Network found:
* "SPN and its affiliates push an extreme right-wing agenda that aims to privatize education, block healthcare reform, restrict workers' rights, roll back environmental protections, and create a tax system that benefits most those at the very top level of income."
* "SPN 'think tanks' work together in coordinated efforts ... often using the same cookie-cutter research and reports, all while claiming to be independent and creating state-focused solutions that purportedly advance the interests or traditions of the state."
* "While it has become an $83 million dollar right-wing empire, SPN and most of its affiliates do not post their major donors on their websites. ... SPN is largely funded by global corporations – such as Reynolds American, Altria, Microsoft, AT&T, Verizon, GlaxoSmithKline, Kraft Foods, Express Scripts, Comcast, Time Warner, and the Koch - and Tea Party-connected DCI Group lobbying and PR firm – ... as well as out- of-state special interests like the billionaire Koch brothers, the Waltons, the Bradley Foundation, the Roe Foundation, and the Coors family. ... Corporations like Facebook and the for-profit online education company K12 Inc., as well as the e-cigarette company NJOY, also fund SPN, as demonstrated at its most recent annual meeting."
* "Although SPN think tanks are registered as educational nonprofits, several appear to orchestrate extensive lobbying and political operations to peddle their legislative agenda to state legislators, despite the IRS's regulations on nonprofit political and lobbying activities."
* "SPN and many of its affiliates are some of the most active members and largest sponsors of the controversial American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), where special interest groups and state politicians vote behind closed doors on "model" legislation to change Americans' rights, through ALEC's task forces. SPN has close ties to, and works with, other national right-wing organizations like the Franklin Center and David Koch's Americans for Prosperity."
SPN is currently headed by Tracie Sharp, who has led the organization to a period of growth; "expanding from 43 member state think tanks in 2002 to 63 member state think tanks as of 2013," along with 100 associate members. Sharp has seen the organization become a multi-million-dollar empire: "In 2011, the combined revenue of SPN and its member think tanks totaled $83.2 million."
"The bottom line is these organizations of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich are representing themselves as groups that are looking out for the best interests of everyday, working class Americans and it's just a blatant lie," Denise Cardinal, executive director of Progress Now, said of the State Policy Network. "What we're doing is trying to bring some transparency to the damaging work they're doing on a daily basis. From policies that promote polluting the air and water to the destruction of our public education system and a tax system that benefits their rich donors, what these organizations are doing is shameful and it's time that someone brought this to light."
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