According to internal documents obtained by the British newspaper and published online Thursday, the Guardian reports that more than forty state-level conservative groups are planning a "US-wide assault" on "education, healthcare, income tax, workers' compensation and the environment."
If you want to know how the right-wing State Policy Network—in concert with a network of other national and state-level conservative policy groups—has been able to overrun state legislatures with "model legislation" that carries the interest of the nation's wealthiest corporations and individuals while undermining workers and communities, the ream of grant proposals obtained by the newspaper tell the tale.
"[Groups like the State Policy Nework] appear to be advocating purely local interests but what they are promoting is part of a larger national template to radically remake our government in a way that undermines public institutions and the rights of workers." –Lisa Graves, Center for Media & Democracy
For the second time this week, the Guardian has published internal documents from an influential U.S. conservative organizing group that reveals rare insight into how they operate and the way smaller, local groups vie for portions of the large amount of money made available by people like the Kochs brothers and other funders of the conservative, Tea Party cabal.
According to the Guardian:
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.
Partnering with local news outlets, the Guardian shared some of the documents in obtained in order to have journalists more familiar with state politics and trends explore the implications of how these nationally-coordinated conservative policies, if enacted, would play out with the communities that will ultimately feel them.
As part of their reporting on the documents, the Guardian published all forty of the proposal sent by state-level groups to SPN for approval.
In the most northeastern state in the country, Maine, a group called the Maine Heritage Policy Center was among the groups who applied (pdf) for a grant through the wealthy national group in order to push a proposal to make the poverty-stricken Washington County a "tax-free zone" in order to promote "economic activity" in the state.
As the Portland Press Herald reports, however, most citizens of the county seem skeptical of the proposal even as Republican legislators in the capital of Augusta and Republican Gov. Paul LePage have begun pushing the idea publicly.
According to the Press Herald:
While open to considering its merits, many business and political leaders think the proposal is philosophically out of step with local efforts, which have emphasized homegrown revitalization rather than reliance on special breaks for the long-struggling county. [...]
Under the Maine Heritage Policy Center’s “FreeME” initiative, Washington County residents and businesses would cease to pay state income taxes or collect sales taxes until economic conditions reach the statewide average and stay there for three years running.
The initiative, introduced last summer and now being evaluated by Gov. Paul LePage’s administration, would make America’s easternmost county the first to waive such taxes in a state that has them. It is intended to showcase economic libertarians’ contention that taxes are a central impediment to economic development.
But Paul Molyneaux of East Machias, a fisherman and writer who has done all manner of work to make ends meet, told the newspaper that the "tax-free" proposal would do little to improve his life.
“Suppose I go to the store and buy $50 worth of clothing and save $3 in taxes – that’s nice, but it’s not going to do much for me over the long haul,” Molyneaux said. “It seems like a ‘give a man a fish’ instead of a ‘teach him how to fish’ argument, because without access to resources, it’s not going to carry you very far.”
As the Guardian's reporting emphasizes, the kind of influence that large outside groups can have on small and often struggling communities can be vast and without a picture of how these proposals make their way from the minds of conservative ideologues to the floor of state legislatures can leave communities oblivious to who exactly is ultimately benefiting from the policies. The Guardian also raises questions about the tax-exempt status of these networks, explaining:
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.
According to Lisa Graves, executive director of the Center for Media & Democracy, which has tracked the work of the State Policy Network and similarly-styled American Legislative Exchange Council, such groups are betraying the communities they claim to represent by introducing "model legislation" that undoubtedly are desigend to serve the interests of large corporations and the wealthy.
"They appear to be advocating purely local interests but what they are promoting is part of a larger national template to radically remake our government in a way that undermines public institutions and the rights of workers," Graves told the Guardian.
And in the case of Washington County in Maine, according to CMD's Rebekah Wilce, "Groups like MHPC paint this work as ‘economic development’ but we need to look at where they are coming from and who is funding their agenda."
The right-wing, anti-populist agenda of the State Policy Network, she told the Press Herald, is to pass laws that “benefit corporate funders, not the people of Maine.”