Posted by Rebekah Wilce on December 05, 2013

The Guardian published a set of coordinated fundraising proposals from State Policy Network (SPN) members today that confirm many of these groups' intent to change state laws and policies, referring to "advancing model legislation" and "candidate briefings." These activities "arguably cross the line into lobbying," The Guardian notes.

SPN funders

The Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) highlighted these questionable political activities in its recent report, "EXPOSED: The State Policy Network: The Powerful Right-Wing Network Helping to Hijack State Politics and Government," as well as in a recent follow-up article.

The funding proposals are from 40 SPN members to the Searle Freedom Trust, a private foundation that funds right-wing groups such as Americans for Prosperity, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Americans for Tax Reform, and more. It is the family foundation funded by the "NutraSweet" fortune of G.D. Searle & Company, which was purchased by Monsanto in 1985 and which is now part of Pfizer. The documents were submitted to Stephen Moore, Wall Street Journal editorial board member, founder of the Club for Growth, and ALEC "scholar," who was asked to review the proposals and "identify your top 20 and bottom 20 proposals."

The documents also confirm what The New Yorker's Jane Mayer showed in a November article, that SPN Executive Director Tracie Sharp peddled disinformation to The Guardian and other press outlets when she told them in a November statement responding to CMD's report that SPN members are "fiercely independent, choosing to manage their staff, pick their own research topics and educate the public on those issues they deem most appropriate for their state." Mayer reported that Sharp told SPN leaders behind closed doors that, far from being independent, SPN members' agendas are often "driven by donor intent" and that "the donors have a very specific idea of what they want to happen."

According to The Guardian, the funding proposals to the Searle Freedom Trust include:

  • "reforms" to public employee pensions raised by SPN thinktanks in Arizona, Colorado, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey and Pennsylvania;

  • tax elimination or reduction schemes in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Maryland, Nebraska and New York;

  • an education voucher system to promote private and home schooling in Florida;

  • campaigns against worker and union rights in Delaware and Nevada;

  • opposition to Medicaid in Georgia, North Carolina and Utah.

A recent article by the Portland Press Herald (which partnered with The Guardian and the Texas Observer to make the fundraising proposals public) focused on the Maine Heritage Policy Center's (MHPC, SPN's Maine affiliate) bid to obtain Searle funding for its efforts to strip Washington County, Maine's "poorest county," of $35 million in tax income. MHPC proposed (PDF, p. 21) a three-year suspension of state income taxes or sales taxes to be offset by deep budget cuts to the struggling but culturally vibrant county. The Portland Press Herald notes that the county is already on the brink of a "long-anticipated renaissance" due to "local efforts, which have emphasized homegrown revitalization rather than reliance on special breaks for the long-struggling county" (disclosure: this reporter was born in Washington County, Maine).

The Texas Observer's examination of the funding proposals uncovered that the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), one of SPN's most influential members (funded by the Koch brothers' energy giant Koch Industries as well as Koch family foundations, as detailed in a recent report by Progress Texas) "claims credit for blocking Medicaid expansion in the state."

The Guardian also highlights a funding proposal by an SPN associate member, the Massachusetts-based Beacon Hill Institute (BHI):

Several hundred miles to the north east in Massachusetts, the Beacon Hill Institute requested $38,825 from Searle to weaken or roll back a five-year effort by states in the region to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The institute said it would carry out research into the economic impact of the cap-and-trade system operating in nine states known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.

BHI appeared to have already arrived at its conclusions in advance, admitting from the outset that the aim of the research was to arm opponents of cap-and-trade with data for their arguments, and to weaken or destroy the initiative. "Success will take the form of media recognition, dissemination to stakeholders, and legislative activity that will pare back or repeal RGGI," the funding proposal says.

The Beacon Hill Institute, technically an affiliate rather than a full member of the SPN, operates out of the economics department of Suffolk University in Boston. David Tuerck, its executive director, denied the group had engaged in lobbying. "There is never any lobbying," he told the Guardian. "Maybe I need to look up the definition again, but lobbying consists of buttonholing legislators and other policymakers to get a particular result on a particular issue, and we never do that."

But Suffolk University, which hosts the Beacon Hill Institute as a research arm of its economics department, sharply criticised the research proposal to the Searle Foundation. In a statement to the Guardian, the university said the grant bid had not been submitted to the university, as required, and that the university would never have approved the proposal. "The stated research goals, as written, were inconsistent with Suffolk University's mission."

These and other examples in the proposals released by the newspapers make clear what CMD's Lisa Graves told The Guardian, that SPN state members "appear to be advocating purely local interests but what they are promoting is part of a larger national template to radically remake our government in a way that undermines public institutions and the rights of workers." Read more in The Guardian here, in the Portland Press Herald here, in CMD's special report here, at CMD's sister site SourceWatch.org here, and in the funding proposals revealed here.

Rebekah Wilce

Rebekah Wilce is a reporter and researcher who directs CMD's Food Rights Network project.