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Hundreds of Thousands of Dollars Distributed to Right Wing State Think Tanks without Disclosure

New Resource Details “Think Tanks” Tanking Americans’ Rights

State Policy NetworkMADISON, WI — The Center for Media and Democracy (CMD), the publisher of the award-winning investigation, is releasing a new web resource for reporters and citizens about the activities of Tracie Sharp’s State Policy Network (SPN) and its state “think tank” members. Although the funding of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is approximately $7 million a year, funding for SPN, its 59 state operations and the controversial Heartland Institute (a SPN ally like ALEC that tries to change both state and federal law) has topped $80 million in recent years. And these SPN operations often function like an echo chamber of the corporate-funded ALEC agenda.

CMD’s three-month investigation uncloaks some of the major funders of SPN’s expanding operations in the states and raises major concerns over whose agenda these groups are advancing:

Tracie Sharp

  • Mystery Funds. This investigation identifies hundreds of thousands of dollars, and perhaps much more than that, which Sharp distributes to these organizations but that is not disclosed to the IRS as passing through SPN’s books. It is possible that Sharp is distributing or designating funds made available via the Koch-connected “DonorsTrust” and “Donors Capital Fund” or some other stream of cash for the state operations she helps grow. However, some of the big bucks at her disposal did not show up in SPN’s 990 form in the same year it was distributed to a SPN group. See the SourceWatch article on SPN Funding for more.
  • Even More Koch Money than Previously Known. This guide also flags that substantial funding for some SPN state operations has come from Koch Industries itself and not only the Koch family foundations. That is, hundreds of thousands of dollars, at least, have been spent by the privately held energy conglomerate controlled by two of the richest billionaires in the world, Charles and David Koch. The total amount is secret because it is not passing through the Koch foundations, which are required to disclose their disbursements. The total amount of Koch money spent on SPN-related efforts to change state laws and spin the news is understated by analysis of their foundation spending alone. See the SourceWatch article on SPN Funding for more.
  • Trying to Change the Law, but Reporting Little or No Lobbying. Like ALEC, SPN and its affiliates seek to change state laws, but report little or no lobbying. That means that corporations and individuals (like Koch Industries and others) that fund their operations can get a tax write-off for funding SPN efforts. See the SourceWatch article on the SPN Agenda for more.
  • SPN Funders Help Some Interests Get Multiple Votes on ALEC Bills. The relationship between SPN affiliates and ALEC is strong and is funded by some of the same donors. That means that some corporate interests like the Kochs get, in effect, multiple votes to change the law on ALEC task forces, where corporate lobbyists and special interest groups like SPN operations vote as equals with elected officials behind closed doors. A particular ALEC task force may have multiple Koch-funded operations — including a lobbyist from Koch Companies Public Sector, a special interest representative from an SPN operation like the Goldwater Institute, and reps from national Koch-controlled or fueled groups like David Koch’s Americans for Prosperity (AFP) and the Charles Koch-founded Cato Institute, along with the Heritage Foundation, a long-time ally of the Koch agenda. Through ALEC, SPN helps write templates to change state laws; then ALEC members vote in secret for those bills; and then SPN supports the introduction or adoption of those bills as law, sometimes with help from David Koch’s AFP echo chamber in a state.
  • Thomas Roe and Ronald ReaganSPN Funders Have Included Some of the Richest and Most Ideological Families in the Country. Fueling SPN-related efforts is a bevy of right-wing billionaires and foundations beyond the Koch brothers and including the Bradley Foundation, DonorsTrust and Donors Capital Fund (large donor-directed funds), the Olin Foundation, the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation (the Amway fortune), the Coors-related Castle Rock Foundation and the Adolph Coors Foundation, the McCamish Foundation, the JM Foundation, and the Smith Richardson Foundation. SPN-related activities are also funded by the Roe Foundation, the charitable arm that is part of the legacy of Thomas Roe, the man who helped launch SPN over two decades ago, after telling one of his allies, “I’m going to capture the states,” just like Ronald Reagan was going to capture the U.S.S.R.
  • SPN’s Legislative Agenda Is Frequently Buttressed by Its Forays as “Press” and the Echoes of Its Allies in the Growing Right-Wing State “Press” Corps. As CMD was one of the first to document, SPN groups like the Goldwater Institute are hiring people to act as reporters, and the legislative agenda of SPN is increasingly echoed by the growing right-wing infrastructure of groups that pose as press. Some even get their stories or “reports” picked up as news and delivered to state newspapers as a “wire” service like the Associated Press, as with the Franklin Center’s groups and the Ryun brothers-allied “American Majority” and “Media Trackers” operations.

This Reporters’ Guide details how SPN works, who funds it, what the network’s groups do, and looks at some of their legislative goals, including undermining workers’ rights and weakening unions as well as undoing renewable energy laws and expanding ways in which tax dollars are redirected to the private sector, for example through funding so-called “virtual schools.”

Key resources include:

  1. PRWatch Special Report with Key Findings
  2. State Policy Network Main Portal
  3. SPN Funding
  4. SPN Ties to ALEC
  5. SPN Members
  6. SPN Agenda
  7. SPN History, Founders, and Staff
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Rebekah Wilce

Rebekah Wilce