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Masters of Manipulation

Right-wing billionaires, corporations and the Bradley Foundation pay for junk studies that prop up their agenda

Nov. 27, 2013
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A clearer picture is emerging of a well-funded network of right-wing experts and think tanks that promote corporate interests in the media and state legislatures around the country.

According to a new study by the Madison-based watchdog group Center for Media and Democracy, the 63 think tank members of State Policy Network (SPN) have worked hand in hand with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to craft pro-corporate, anti-democratic legislation that boosts their donors’ bottom line.

The allegedly independent, nonpartisan think tanks in SPN—including the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute and the John K. MacIver Institute for Public Policy—provide and share the ideologically skewed data and analyses that form the justification for bills to sabotage Obamacare, gut workers’ rights and ban unions, reform the tax code to benefit the wealthy and corporations, roll back environmental protections, expand school vouchers and privatization, abolish Common Core standards and more.

ALEC then uses SPN studies when drafting the cookie-cutter bills that conservative legislators introduce in statehouses around the country.

“They call themselves independent policy think tanks,” Nick Surgey, Center for Media and Democracy’s research director, told the Shepherd. “But the reality is that they are often corporate-funded groups that are entirely focused on a legislative agenda that benefits the corporations that fund them.”


Dark Money and Tax Deductions

Although these entities claim to be independent, the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) found that SPN and ALEC have overlapping deep-pocketed donors, interests and personnel.

But despite its relatively low profile, SPN is a magnet for far more right-wing funding than ALEC. In 2011 alone, CMD found, right-wing individuals, major corporations and tax-exempt foundations poured an astounding $83 million into the State Policy Network (SPN) and its affiliates. That dwarfs ALEC’s $7 million in funding that year.

Not surprisingly, a vast number of the donors are tied to the billionaire Koch brothers—and they get a nice tax break for donating to a nonpartisan educational organization.

CMD found that major donors of this SPN-ALEC echo chamber are secretive funds tied to the Koch brothers, Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund, organizations that Mother Jones has called the “dark-money ATM of the conservative movement.” These tax-exempt foundations are required to report the groups they fund, but they don’t have to reveal their own donors. In fact, that seems to be the point of Donors Trust and Donor Capital Fund, CMD found.

“Very, very wealthy individuals have increasingly been using nonprofits to hide their fingerprints on these donations,” Surgey said. “Donors Trust and Donors Capital are organizations that allow high-dollar donors to pool their donations and fund these organizations to a very significant degree.”

In addition to benefiting from the cloak of anonymity that these organizations provide, the billionaire and corporate donors get to write off their donations on their taxes.

“They want to be able to get the advantage of a tax deduction without people being aware that they are giving the money,” Surgey said. “It’s a way of hiding the identity of the donors.”


Coordinating With ALEC

The State Policy Network argues that its member think tanks are independent truth-tellers. But a report by Jane Mayer in The New Yorker found that SPN members follow what the network’s president, Tracie Sharp, calls “the IKEA model,” in which the central organization would provide the “raw materials” and “services” while the state-based think tanks would assemble the parts to suit their needs.

Mayer quotes Sharp telling SPN members at its annual meeting in September that “the grants are driven by donor intent” and “the donors have a very specific idea of what they want to happen.”

CMD’s investigation also shows the tight links between SPN and ALEC. SPN spent more than $100,000 to sponsor ALEC’s annual conferences and Sharp is on ALEC’s education task force.

CMD found that SPN think tanks have written many pieces of ALEC’s model legislation, including bills to privatize education and public pensions, create a “right to work” state, withdraw states from regional climate initiatives and implement voter ID.

In addition, Surgey said that SPN held a workshop at ALEC’s meeting this summer called “You Can Too.”

“What ‘you can too’ is reform Medicaid, reduce taxes and enact right-to-work laws,” Surgey said. “It’s pretty clear that what they’re talking about is a legislative agenda.”


Bradley Foundation Outspends Koch Brothers

Besides the Koch-connected Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund, a major SPN funder is the Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation, which is led by Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign chair, Michael Grebe.

With more than $550 million in assets, the Bradley Foundation sunk at least $31 million into its voucher studies and programs, according to a report by One Wisconsin Now (OWN). But its funding is sent to other conservative, free-market foundations and think tanks around the country.

“They are the biggest funder of right-wing causes in the nation,” said Mike Browne, OWN’s deputy director. “They spend more money than the Koch brothers.”

The Bradley Foundation is a huge supporter of members of the State Policy Network in Wisconsin and elsewhere. According to OWN’s research, the Bradley Foundation has given more than $16.5 million to the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute and $635,000 to John K. McIver Institute for Public Policy. The two groups are SPN members that have provided voucher-supporting studies and analysis at the same time they attempt to pass themselves off as independent, straight-shooting think tanks.

WPRI, which bills itself as “Wisconsin’s Free Market Think Tank,” has precious few scholars on staff—none, in fact. Its president is former Journal Sentinel columnist Mike Nichols and its lead commentators are WTMJ’s Charlie Sykes (whose current wife works for the Bradley Foundation), political consultant Deb Jordahl and former Department of Administration Secretary George Lightbourn.

WPRI’s board is dominated by the state’s corporate chiefs, including Tom Howatt, chair of Wausau Paper Corp.; Bank Mutual President David Baumgarten; ex-MillerCoors Vice President Michael Jones; former Thompson administration official and We Energies Senior Vice President James Klauser; Milwaukee investor David Lubar; and Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC) President Tim Sheehy.

So it’s no wonder why WPRI has churned out studies supporting the agenda shared by Walker and the Bradley Foundation, including attacks on public schools, climate change, public employee benefits and the state’s renewable energy targets while promoting highway expansion, commercial bail bonds and fracking.

The board of directors of MacIver Institute includes Milwaukee businessman Fred Luber; Michael, Best and Friedrich attorney James Troupis; and former Republican First Lady Laurie McCallum. Its president is Brett Healy, a former aide to disgraced Republican Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen, now a school voucher lobbyist.

Other Wisconsin partners of SPN are the Lucy Burns Institute, Bradley Foundation-funded Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, Americans for Prosperity-Wisconsin, the Dick Armey-led FreedomWorks-Wisconsin, the Taxpayers Network Incorporated and the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance.


Crossing the Line?

As One Wisconsin Now’s report notes, the MacIver Institute props up Walker’s pro-privatization agenda not just with its studies and news bulletins, but by actively campaigning for it. The nonprofit, tax-exempt institute isn’t allowed to get involved in political activities, elections or lobbying. Yet MacIver Institute, the Koch-funded Astroturf group Americans for Prosperity Foundation and the Heartland Institute—all SPN members—spent $3.7 million on ads and other activities to help Walker in his recall, activities that spurred the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign to file a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service arguing that the groups were “gaming the tax code to play electoral politics while masquerading as charitable organizations.”

More recently, MacIver took credit for providing the groundwork for state Rep. Dale Kooyenga’s (R-Brookfield) $648 million tax cut proposal, which Walker incorporated into his budget. MacIver’s Healy, its communications director and members of Americans for Prosperity-Wisconsin participated in five “tax townhalls” in May to discuss tax reform, which SPN heavily implies influenced Walker’s and Kooyenga’s regressive tax breaks.

Walker seems to be a fan of SPN’s work. According to his official schedule provided to the Shepherd, he set aside an hour to tape a video for the State Policy Network on March 4, at the executive residence.

The Bradley Foundation, WPRI and MacIver Institute did not respond to the Shepherd’s request to comment for this article.


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