Some years ago, in a study of foundation support for school privatization, we noted the multiplicity of state-level conservative “think tanks” supporting a pretty consistent state-to-state agenda, achieving widespread success in pushing for vouchers, corporate tax credits for private schools, and charter schools. We documented the grantmaking to these state think tanks, highlighting the significant role of the Roe Foundation based in South Carolina.
Yesterday, Progress Now and the Center for Media and Democracy released a hard-hitting study about 63 state-level conservative think tanks that are members of the State Policy Network. Founded in 1991 and incorporated in 1992, SPN’s founding board chair was in fact Thomas Roe himself. From 13 member think tanks at its founding, SPN now has think tanks operating in all 50 states. Based on a suggestion from Ronald Reagan that he try to create a Heritage Foundation in every state, Roe’s animating idea was that state level policy think tanks would capture the attention of state policy makers.
It was smart thinking. As Gordon Lafer, a professor at the University of Oregon, noted during a press briefing organized by the two sponsors of the study, many state legislators are “thinly staffed” and therefore look to outside experts for frameworks and suggestions. These conservative state think tanks give legislators detailed analyses and model legislation addressing business issues (such as deregulation, right to work, and low minimum wages), healthcare (actively opposing state-level implementation and collaboration with the Affordable Care Act), and state taxes (reduced tax rates for corporations and for the wealthy)—though much of the model legislation comes ready-made from SPN’s association with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), known for its advocacy of pro-business legislation as well as restrictive voting rights bills and stand-your-ground statutes.