A series of new reports allege that the State Policy Network (SPN) and its web of think tanks, including the Illinois Policy Institute, are reportedly driving a "right-wing agenda" across all 50 states. Progress Illinois takes a look at the reports and the "big-money funders" behind SPN and its affiliated think tank in Illinois.
A series of new reports allege that the State Policy Network (SPN) and its web of think tanks, including the Illinois Policy Institute, are reportedly driving a "right-wing agenda" across all 50 states.
On its website, SPN, a tax-exempt organization, says it's the "only group in the country dedicated solely to improving the practical effectiveness of independent, non-profit, market-oriented, state-focused think tanks." SPN works to "enable these organizations to better educate local citizens, policy makers and opinion leaders about market-oriented alternatives to state and local policy challenges."
But the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) and ProgressNow's new study, which includes a local report for Illinois, maintains that SPN and its affiliates in every state are big pushers of public policy backed by the pro-corporate American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and other right-wing funders, including organizations with ties to the billionaire Koch brothers.
According to the national report, some of the issues the think tanks peddle involve privatizing education, restricting workers’ rights and rolling back environmental protections, to name a few. The network of think tanks typically use 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," the report reads.
"The 'experts' of State Policy Network groups get quoted on TV, in the papers, or in the legislature as if they were nonpartisan, objective scholars on issues of public policy," CMD's executive director Lisa Graves said in a statement. "But in reality, SPN is a front for corporate interests with an extreme national policy agenda tied to some of the most retrograde special interests in the country, including the billionaire Koch brothers, the Waltons, the Bradley Foundation, the Roe Foundation and the Coors family."
According to the report, SPN and its think tanks collectively raked in more than $83 million in revenue in 2011, with a good chunk of the funding coming from the Donors Trust and its associated organization Donors Capital Fund, which have ties to the Koch brothers and have been called "the dark-money ATM of the conservative movement." Other top SPN funders include ALEC, AT&T, BMO Harris Bank, Kraft Foods and the DCI Group, LLC, a top Republican lobby and PR firm.
SPN, which is based in Arlington, Virginia, is also connected to other national, right-wing groups such as the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity and David Koch’s Americans for Prosperity Foundation, the study noted.
"I don’t think the sources of funding are irrelevant to evaluating research that comes from a group," explained Kent Redfield, a professor emeritus of political science and public affairs at the University of Illinois at Springfield. "On the other hand, you have to be careful, because if you’ve got a particular orientation ... you’re going to attract funding because people like the way you approach issues. That’s an entirely different thing than being a mercenary in essentially cooking the books for whoever happens to be paying you."
There's "no question," however, that there's been an uptick in groups focused on public policy research from a "free-market, conservative kind of perspective," Redfield noted.
"There’s been a huge increase in the number of those groups, and they clearly have been funded by conservative interests," he added. "Clearly, the Illinois Policy Institute has gone from not really being there to being a fairly large presence in terms of generating analysis and doing research on public policies issues in Illinois."
In an interview with Politico about the recent study, SPN President Tracie Sharp said the group's affiliates are all "fiercely independent," adding that they individually choose their areas of research. Also, Sharp explained that SPN keeps its donors under wraps and voluntary, which is a common practice among other non-profits.
“While these are completely baseless allegations, their source is not surprising,” Sharp told the news site. “Organizations like the Center for Media and Democracy are strangely troubled by the fact that we believe in a more transparent, accountable government, policies that place a priority on free enterprise and consumer choice, and tax policies that are fair, simple and that spur the kind of competitiveness that puts Americans back to work.”
The Illinois-based report showed that the Illinois Policy Institute (IPI), which describes itself as a "nonpartisan research organization working to make Illinois first in economic outlook and job creation," received almost $2 million from the Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund from 2005 to 2011. Other high-profile, out-of-state donors to IPI, which does not have to publicly disclose such funding information, include the Roe Foundation, started by SPN's founding chairman Thomas Roe, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Cato Institute and the Coors family's Castle Rock Foundation, among others cited in the report. Overall, IPI had more than $2.8 million in reported revenue and more $400,000 in net assets in 2011, the study found.
Amisha Patel, executive director of the Grassroots Collaborative, a coalition of Illinois labor and community groups, said she wasn't surprised to learn some of the ways in which IPI gets its funding, but added that the report "shows exactly what we're up against in terms of trying to actually make policies that help working families."
"There's a very clear politic to [IPI's] agenda [that is] well financed by folks who are trying to push a right-wing, conservative agenda across many parts of this country," she said. "Anything that they say should be understood under that framework ... of who is it that wants this message put out? And it's not a message that working families in the state want to hear."
According to the report, SPN's think tanks are registered as charitable educational organizations, meaning corporations and individuals can write off donations to the groups. Due to their 501(c)(3) non-profit status, the think tanks are not allowed to make political contributions or take part in partisan political campaigning, the report reads.
IPI, which is registered as a 501(c)(3) non-profit, made two $275 direct individual contributions to the Illinois Republican Party back in May 2008, the report showed.
But that's not the whole story, explained Redfield.
"Yes there are two contributions ... from IPI to the Illinois Republican Party, but you also go back and run that from the other direction in terms of expenditures, and they both got returned," said Redfield, who is also an expert on campaign finance. "There are expenditures from the Illinois Republican Party [that went back] to IPI for those two amounts ... [The report is] drawing a conclusion on what seems to be pretty weak soup."
Meanwhile, the report highlighted previous reporting that showed IPI's CEO John Tillman is affiliated with the right-wing Illinois Liberty PAC.
"You're having an appearance of a conflict of interest, even though (Tillman) can do whatever he wants as a private citizen that's separate from the activities of the institute," Redfield stressed. "If the Illinois Policy Institute were soliciting money and involved with the political action committee and endorsing candidates, they would be violating their 501(c)(3) tax status, and I'm not aware that they do that at all."
The study, however, maintains that there is a clear connection between IPI's funders and the issues for which it advocates. For example, the "nonpartisan research organization" supports union-busting measures like "right to work" legislation and is in favor of a school voucher program, privatizing Illinois' public schools and lowering corporate taxes. The group opposes things like renewable energy sources, a progressive income tax and boosting Illinois' minimum wage, according to the report.
IPI is also reportedly an active member of ALEC, a right-wing association made up of more than 2,000 state legislators, mainly Republicans, and hundreds of corporate members who craft and approve legislation behind closed doors called “model bills." The member legislators later introduce the ALEC-backed proposals in statehouses across the country with little, if any, disclosure about the source of the legislation. Nearly all of ALEC's operations are funded by corporations and trade associations.
The Illinois think tank has reportedly been on a number of ALEC task forces, where members create and take votes on policy proposals. Additionally, CMD and ProgressNow found that IPI was a "vice-chairman" level sponsor of ALEC's annual conference held in Chicago in August, meaning the group provided at least $25,000 for the event.
Moreover, the study alleges that IPI attempted to profit from the privatization Illinois' public schools through new virtual charter schools. IPI fiercely opposed state legislation, HB 494, which successfully established a one-year moratorium on new virtual charter schools in April.
The moratorium stopped Virtual Learning Solutions from setting up the Illinois Virtual Charter School @ Fox River Valley in 18 suburban Illinois school districts. Ted Dabrowski, IPI's vice president of policy, is a Virtual Learning Solutions board member. Also, Eric Kohn, who is reportedly married to a staff member at IPI, is Virtual Learning Solutions' treasurer, Chicago Now reported in June. If the charter proposal moved forward, Virtual Learning Solution's online school endeavor would have resulted in a projected $16 million in Illinois tax dollars over a five-year period. IPI, however, has denied that its staffers had any financial interest in the online charter school proposal.
IPI did not return Progress Illinois' requests for comment for this story by deadline.
Overall, Redfield made a point to stress that IPI is not "masquerading as a peer-reviewed academic institution" and neither is another research think tank in Illinois, the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, which supports more progressive tax, spending and economic policies.
"I don’t know [if] knowing who funds the Illinois Policy Institute or who funds the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability adds a lot to your information if you look at the way they present themselves, and they way they frame issues and the kind of assumptions that they use in approaching researching," Redfield said.
"Maintaining your integrity when you're definitely in one camp or another, and ... taking money from one side or the other in policy debates, then people are going to look at your research with a critical eye, and I think that's perfectly valid," Redfield continued. "Good research is good research. Bad research is bad research."