Conservative ‘Non-Profit’ Groups Plan US-Wide Assault Against Public Education, Workers Rights & Medicaid By Using Corporate Media
Conservative groups across the US are planning a co-ordinated assault against public sector rights and services in the key areas of education, healthcare, income tax, workers’ compensation and the environment, documents obtained by the Guardian reveal.
The strategy for the state-level organisations, which describe themselves as “free-market thinktanks”, includes proposals from six different states for cuts in public sector pensions, campaigns to reduce the wages of government workers and eliminate income taxes, school voucher schemes to counter public education, opposition to Medicaid, and a campaign against regional efforts to combat greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change.
The policy goals are contained in a set of funding proposals obtained by the Guardian. The proposals were co-ordinated by the State Policy Network, an alliance of groups that act as incubators of conservative strategy at state level.
The documents contain 40 funding proposals from 34 states, providing a blueprint for the conservative agenda in 2014. In partnership with the Texas Observer and the Portland Press Herald in Maine, the Guardian is publishing SPN’s summary of all the proposals to give readers and news outlets full and fair access to state-by-state conservative plans that could have significant impact throughout the US, and to allow the public to reach its own conclusions about whether these activities comply with the spirit of non-profit tax-exempt charities.
Details of the co-ordinated approach come amid growing federal scrutiny of the political activities of tax-exempt charities. Last week the Obama administration announced a new clampdown on those groups that violate tax rules by engaging in direct political campaigning.
Most of the “thinktanks” involved in the proposals gathered by the State Policy Network are constituted as 501(c)(3) charities that are exempt from tax by the Internal Revenue Service. Though the groups are not involved in election campaigns, they are subject to strict restrictions on the amount of lobbying they are allowed to perform. Several of the grant bids contained in the Guardian documents propose the launch of “media campaigns” aimed at changing state laws and policies, or refer to “advancing model legislation” and “candidate briefings”, in ways that arguably cross the line into lobbying.
The documents also cast light on the nexus of funding arrangements behind radical rightwing campaigns. The State Policy Network (SPN) has members in each of the 50 states and an annual warchest of $83m drawn from major corporate donors that include the energy tycoons the Koch brothers, the tobacco company Philip Morris, food giant Kraft and the multinational drugs company GlaxoSmithKline.
SPN’s link to Searle, the Guardian documents show, was Stephen Moore, an editorial writer with the Wall Street Journal. Moore, who advises Searle on its grant-giving activities, was asked by SPN to rank the proposals in two halves – a “top 20” and “bottom 20”. It is not known how many of the 40 proposals were approved for funding, nor which may have been successful.
Moore told the Guardian that he is an unpaid adviser to the Searle Foundation, having been a lifetime family friend to Dan Searle. He said the grant decisions were made by Searle’s sons and grandsons based upon the late businessman’s “commitment to the advancement of free enterprise and individual rights”.
The proposals in the grant bids contained in the Guardian documents go beyond a commitment to free enterprise, however. They 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.
In its grant bid, the Maine Heritage Policy Center asked for $35,000 to support a “research and demonstration project” that would “release residents from extreme government dependency”. It would turn the state’s poorest area into what the Portland Press Herald describes in its report from Washington County as “a gigantic tax-free zone”.
Dubbed “FreeME”, the initiative would eliminate state income tax and sale taxes from residents and businesses until the economic conditions in the county rise to the statewide average. The hole in the county’s income from lost tax revenues – estimated at $35m a year by the think tank – would be filled through budget cuts.
Medicaid is the target of a grant proposal coming from the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), an influential thinktank funded largely by rightwing foundations and corporations including the energy tycoons the Koch brothers, tobacco company Altria and the telecoms giant Verizon. The Texas Observer has investigated the contents of the document and points out that in its request for $40,000 from Searle, TPPF claims credit for blocking Medicaid expansion in the state.
“[S]topping Medicaid expansion is just the first step," the proposal says, adding that the "missing piece to complete our message is an economic forecast" showing how block-granting Medicaid would "bring significant savings" to the state. That information would then be used to garner attention from the media.