The State Policy Network (SPN) is an American nonprofit organization that functions primarily as an umbrella organization for a consortium of conservative and libertarian think tanks that focus on state-level policy. The organization serves as a public policy clearinghouse and advises its member think tanks on fundraising, running a nonprofit, and communicating ideas. Founded in 1992, it is headquartered in Arlington, Virginia, with member groups located in all fifty states.
|Predecessor||Madison Group (1986–1992)|
|Founder||Thomas A. Roe|
|Purpose||Promote public policy from a framework of limited government|
|Headquarters||1655 N. Fort Myer Dr., S-360
Arlington, Virginia 22209
|Mission||"To catalyze thriving, durable freedom movements in every state, anchored with high-performing, independent think tanks."|
SPN characterizes itself as the "professional service organization" for a network of state-level think tanks across the United States. The Wall Street Journal and National Review have referred to SPN as "a trade association of think tanks."
The State Policy Network was founded in 1992 by Thomas A. Roe, a South Carolina businessman who was a member of the board of trustees of The Heritage Foundation. Roe told U.S. President Ronald Reagan that he thought each of the states needed something like the Heritage Foundation. Reagan's reply was "Do something about it," which led Roe to establish the South Carolina Policy Council (SCPC). SCPC adapted Heritage Foundation national policy recommendations, such as school choice and environmental deregulation, to the state legislative level.
SPN was an outgrowth of the Madison Group, a collection of state-level think tanks in states including South Carolina, Colorado, Illinois, and Michigan that had been meeting periodically at the Madison Hotel in Washington, D.C. Roe was chairman of the board of directors of SPN from its founding until his death in 2000. Gary Palmer, co-founder and president of the conservative think tank the Alabama Policy Institute from 1989 until 2014, helped found SPN and served as its president.
Initially, SPN's network consisted of fewer than 20 member organizations. Lawrence Reed, the first president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Michigan-based free market think tank, fostered new state-level regular member organizations through delivery of his think tank training course. By the mid-1990s, SPN had a network of 37 think tanks in 30 states. By 2014, there were 65 member organizations, including at least one in each state.
Starting in 1993, the SPN has held an Annual Meeting around the country. These meetings serve as a chance for members to discuss and analyze policy priorities, train and build members, and refine operations, among other topics.
Policy initiatives supported by SPN members have included reductions in state health and welfare programs, state constitutional amendments to limit state government spending, expanded access to charter schools, and school vouchers. Another area of activity has been opposition to public-sector trade unions. Tracie Sharp, SPN's president, has said the organization focuses on issues such as "workplace freedom, education reform, and individual choice in healthcare."
The liberal magazine Mother Jones stated that in 2011 SPN and its member organizations were backing a "war on organized labor" by Republican state lawmakers. Legislative actions taken by the GOP included the introduction and enactment of bills reducing or eliminating collective bargaining for teachers and other government workers and reducing the authority of unions to collect dues from government employees. In Iowa, Governor Terry Branstad cited research by the Public Interest Institute, an SPN affiliate in Iowa, when asking to amend laws to limit collective bargaining by public employees.
In December 2013, The Guardian, in collaboration with The Texas Observer and the Portland Press Herald, obtained, published and analyzed 40 grant proposals from SPN regular member organizations. The grant proposals sought funding through SPN from the Searle Freedom Trust. According to The Guardian, the proposals documented a coordinated strategy across 34 states, "a blueprint for the conservative agenda in 2014." The reports described the grant proposals in six states as suggesting campaigns designed to cut pay to state government employees; oppose public sector collective bargaining; reduce public sector services in education and healthcare; promote school vouchers; oppose efforts to combat greenhouse gas emissions; reduce or eliminate income and sales taxes; and study a proposed block grant reform to Medicare. Brooke Rollins, president and CEO of the SPN member organization Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), and TPPF policy analyst John Daniel Davidson, in an article posted on the National Review website, said The Guardian was attempting to intimidate those who support libertarian organizations and to undermine the freedoms of expression and association, and said that The Guardian is part of "the activist Left," described as "a deliberate, coordinated effort across the political left to silence Americans who speak against — and lawfully resist — the growth of government power."
National Review journalist John Miller reported that in 1990, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy shared much of its "brain trust" with Republican governor John Engler's election campaign. After the election, the Mackinac Center worked successfully with the Engler administration to effect policy changes in areas such as the promotion of charter schools and increasing competition in state contracting.
In 2006, three former presidents of SPN member organizations were serving as Republicans in the United States House of Representatives: Mike Pence of Indiana, Jeff Flake of Arizona, and Tom Tancredo of Colorado. National Review described them as having "used SPN organizations as political springboards."
SPN is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Its independently audited 2013 Internal Revenue Service Form 990 showed $8 million in revenue and $8.4 million in expenditures, of which $1.3 million was used for grants and payments to other organizations. The organization received a Charity Navigator score of 88 out of 100 in its most recent evaluation.
In 2013, Sharp told Politico that like most nonprofits, SPN keeps its donors private and voluntary. In 2011, Mother Jones reported that SPN is largely funded by donations from foundations, including the Lovett and Ruth Peters Foundation, the Castle Rock Foundation, and the Bradley Foundation. A 2013 article by The Guardian said that SPN received funding from the Koch brothers, Philip Morris, Kraft Foods and GlaxoSmithKline. Other corporate donors to SPN have included Facebook, Microsoft, AT&T, Time Warner Cable, Verizon, and Comcast. Between 2008 and 2013, SPN received $10 million from Donors Trust, a nonprofit donor-advised fund. In 2011, the approximately $2 million investment from Donors Trust accounted for about 40% of annual revenue.
SPN provides grant funding to its member organizations for start-up costs and program operating expenses. In 2011, SPN granted $60,000 in start-up funds to the Foundation for Government Accountability, a free market think tank based in Naples, Florida. SPN also provides practical support to its members, who meet each year at SPN conferences. SPN member organizations exchange ideas and provide training and other support for each other. A spokesperson for the progressive advocacy group People for the American Way said in 2008 that SPN trained its member organizations to run like business franchises. In a 2013 statement to The New Yorker, SPN president Sharp denied that SPN was a franchise and said that member organizations were free to select their own staff and priorities.
SPN is a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization that drafts and shares state-level model legislation for conservative causes, and ALEC is an associate member of SPN. SPN is among the sponsors of ALEC. A 2009 article in an SPN newsletter encouraged SPN members to join ALEC, and many SPN members are also members of ALEC. ALEC is "SPN's sister organisation," according to The Guardian.
As of 2015, SPN had a membership of 65 think tanks and hundreds of affiliated organizations in all 50 states. Membership in SPN is by invitation only and is limited to independently incorporated 501(c)(3) organizations that are "dedicated to advancing market-oriented public policy solutions." According to Politico, SPN's associate members include a "who’s who of conservative organizations", including the Cato Institute, Heritage Foundation, Americans for Prosperity Foundation, FreedomWorks, Americans for Tax Reform, and American Legislative Exchange Council. In 2011, SPN and its regular member organizations received combined total revenues of $83.2 million, according to a 2013 analysis of their federal tax filings by the liberal watchdog group Center for Media and Democracy.