Reports detail how corporate-funded SPN works behind the scenes to directly influence public policy through lobbyists posing as experts.
A new swath of reports reveals the State Policy Network is at the forefront of right-wing lobbying, with more than $83 million generated and used through various think-tanks intended to further the agenda with the use of so-called corporate-funded experts.
The reports, published in coordination with the Center for Media and Democracy and Progress Now, looks at an organization that has long flown under the radar, only to discover that its “expert” messages are secretly funded by big-business agendas, intended to directly influence public policy.
“We’ve uncovered how the major donors to this group include some of the dark money — the atm of the right,” Center for Media and Democracy Executive Director Lisa Graves said in a press call regarding the report. “We’ve also revealed how major right wing CEO families are funding this network.”
SPN has used its think-tanks, which are considered “educational nonprofits,” to disseminate information that coincides with ALEC model legislation.
“While SPN is a national organization with 63 affiliates and over 100 associate members, it remains a closely connected network. It is not uncommon for think tank members to share board members, “scholars,” or staffers, nor is it uncommon for the think tanks to share research materials,coordinating their agenda and tailoring national research to fit into state-related politics,” the report, “Exposed: The State Policy Network” states.
A little like ALEC, but not
While the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) have received the attention for its corporate-sponsored model bill legislation, its involvement with SPN and the vast network of affiliates has, up until this point, not been a talking point. This, despite the fact that its affiliated think-tanks exist in every state, often times working alongside organizations like ALEC to push model legislation that meets their objectives.
“Although many of SPN’s member organizations claim to be nonpartisan and independent, our in-depth investigation reveals that SPN and its member think tanks are major drivers of the right-wing, ALEC-backed agenda in statehouses nationwide, with deep ties to the Koch brothers and the national right-wing network of funders, all while reporting little or no lobbying activities,” the report states.
The aim of SPN isn’t all that far off from ALEC — in fact, it’s largely the same, with different means of achieving the unified goal
At its recent meeting, held September in Oklahoma City, the organization’s members discussed ways to reform key areas of American public policy, including privatizing schools for profit, ending workers’ collective bargaining rights, cutbacks to public worker pensions and rollbacks to the state and federal budget.
Environmental rollbacks have also been a part of the organization’s agenda, with state-level legislation intended to roll back environmental policies and green tax credits.
While the organization presents itself as a market-based think-tank tasked with providing public policy makers and media with experts on an array of topics, the new report takes a look at its donors, arguing that the goal of SPN is the goal of those who fund it.
Tracing the money
The big donors to not only SPN and its arm of nonprofits include some of the nation’s largest companies — and notorious right-wing donors.
The identities of the donors, up until the most recent reports released by the Center for Media and Democracy and Progress Now, weren’t publicized, leaving little room for the average citizen — or politician — to see through to the true mission of SPN.
The investigation revealed major donors include Comcast, Time Warner, Microsoft, Facebook, AT&T, Kraft Foods, and K12, Inc., a for-profit online school. The DCI Lobbying Group, which has known connections to the notorious Koch Brothers, is also involved in the game, according to the report.
Corporations spending money on policies that will positively influence their business isn’t all that surprising to many, yet the authors of the report highlight the secrecy that has gone on under the SPN label, allowing the organization to represent itself as an arm of the average American.
“The bottom line is these organizations of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich are representing themselves as groups that are looking out for the best interests of everyday, working class Americans, and it’s just a blatant lie,” Denise Cardinal, executive director at Progress Now, said in a press release. “What we’re doing is trying to bring some transparency to the damaging work they’re doing on a daily basis. From policies that promote polluting the air and water to the destruction of our public education system and a tax system that benefits their rich donors, what these organizations are doing is shameful and it’s time that someone brought this to light.”
What role does SPN play in politics?
Gordon Lafer, professor at the University of Oregon and research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, claims the role of SPN has traditionally been to provide politicians with information on proposed bills.
According to Lafer, most politicians take representatives and experts with SPN as just that, not knowing that SPN representatives are merely lobbyists without the title.
“It is the dressed-up voice of corporate spenders and corporate donor spenders, and they don’t necessarily know this,” Lafer said in a press call.
SPN’s involvement in nationwide politics at a state level can be seen through its efforts in 2011 to rollback the Affordable Care Act in the midst of the nation’s health care debate. Unlike ALEC, SPN worked through its think-tank organizations to release “prognosis reports,” which appeared to be equipped with expert testimony claiming the Affordable Care Act would weaken state economies.
Each report, almost identical in nature, was released by a different think tank to a different state, leaving the trace of a “model report” less likely to be identified.
John Loredo, former Minority Leader of the Arizona House of Representatives, has been on the other end of this game. Even for those politicians who are fully aware of SPN and its objectives, sounding the alarm on the corporate involvement outside the realms of “traditional lobbying” would be the end of a lawmaker’s career.
“There is an understanding that there is a consequence to stepping up to these people and the consequence is that you’re going to get torn to shreds in your next election,” Loredo said in a press call. “For a lot of elected officials, that’s not a fight they want to take on.”
Ultimately, the efforts of SPN think-tanks essentially amount to lobbying, according to Graves. However, the report indicates that expenditure reports of SPN think-tanks reveal no money spent on lobbying.
Yet it’s not just politicians who are swayed — those being touted as experts by SPN often have hidden agendas, yet are promoted by media outlets as nonpartisan topic experts.
At SPN’s 2007 annual meeting, it held a seminar titled, “Strategies to Bring the Policy Heat: Collaborating with C4s, Hiring Investigative Reporters and Using Legislation.” The aim was to take their message, masked as bipartisan information, to the public.
“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,” Graves said in a press release. “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.”