A web of money, power, and deception
Earlier this year, I wrote about Lee Fang’s important piece in The Nation magazine titled “The Right Leans In”. In that piece, Fang detailed the pervasive influence of the corporatist network called the State Policy Network (SPN) in shaping public policy in states throughout the country. Funded heavily by corporate interests and wealthy business owners like the Koch brothers and the DeVos family in Michigan, SPN affiliates like Michigan’s Mackinac Center exert an increasing level of power to roll back protects for workers, weaken environmental laws, revise tax codes to benefit corporations, and to advance a host of other corporatist goals. Lee Fang also wrote a book titled “The Machine: A Field Guide to the Resurgent Right” which I reviewed HERE. The Machine gives an even deeper glimpse into the world of corporate funded governing.
New reports out this week from , and Progress Michigan provide new information about SPN, Mackinac Center, and the myriad other groups nationwide that are setting policy in our state governments that favor corporate profits over the interests of the citizens.
The Center for Media and Democracy and Progress Now have set up a new website called “StinkTanks.org” where you can follow the money to get a fuller understanding of just how powerful corporations have become in setting policy and passing laws to benefit their profit taking.
Here are some highlights:
- While it has become an $83 million dollar right-wing empire, SPN and most of its affiliates do not post their major donors on their websites. The identities of the donors we have discovered reveal that SPN is largely funded by global corporations — such as Reynolds American, Altria, the e-cigarette company NJOY, Microsoft, AT&T, Verizon, Facebook, the for-profit online education company K12 Inc., GlaxoSmithKline, Kraft Foods, Express Scripts, Comcast, Time Warner, and the Koch- and Tea Party-connected DCI Group lobbying and PR firm — that stand to benefit from SPN’s destructive agenda, as well as out-of-state special interests like the billionaire Koch brothers, the Waltons, the Bradley Foundation, the Roe Foundation, and the Coors family — who are underwriting an extreme legislative agenda that undermines the traditional rights of modern Americans.
- Although SPN’s affiliates are registered as educational nonprofits, several appear to orchestrate extensive lobbying and political operations to peddle their legislative agenda to state legislators, despite the IRS’s regulations on nonprofit political and lobbying activities.
- SPN and its affiliates push an extreme right-wing agenda that aims to privatize education, block healthcare reform, restrict workers’ rights, roll back environmental protections, and create a tax system that benefits most those at the very top level of income.
- SPN and many of its affiliates are some of the most active members and largest sponsors of the controversial ALEC, where special interest groups and state politicians vote behind closed doors on “model” legislation to change Americans’ rights, through ALEC’s task forces. SPN has close ties to, and works with, other national right-wing organizations like the Franklin Center and David Koch’s Americans for Prosperity.
Chart via Center for Media and Democracy
You can read the full report HERE which documents how this national network of well-financed corporatist groups is working to attack workers’ rights, privatize and profitize education, privatize public pension systems, roll back environmental initiatives, and to disenfranchise the elderly, people of color, and students.
One of the most active SPN affiliates and ALEC members is Michigan’s own Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Masquerading as a non-partisan educational organization, they receive nearly a fifth of the funding from SPN. Despite their tax status as a 501c(3) nonprofit group, they illegally engage in lobbying efforts and have made donations to more than one Republican Party group. Progress Michigan released a report this week titled “Mackinac Center Exposed: Who’s Running Michigan?” which gives an in-depth look at just how powerful this corporatist group has become.
Some highlights from their report:
- Mackinac and ALEC’s Shared Corporate Agenda:
The Mackinac Center is an ac-tive member of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporate bill mill. Over the years, Mackinac staffers have proposed numerous bills at ALEC task force meetings, where elected officials and private sector members (like corporate lobbyists and special interest groups) vote as equals behind closed doors on templates to change the law. Under ALEC’s public bylaws, its state legislative leaders are tasked with a “duty” to get those bill introduced into law. The coordinated agenda that ALEC and the Mackinac Center advocate for includes:
- Attacking workers’ rights with the recent so-called “Right to Work” law, pushing paycheck deception measures, calling for the repeal of the pre-vailing wage law and advocating for bills that cut public pension benefits
- Blocking the bipartisan effort in Michigan to expand Medicaid and implement the Affordable Care Act that would give access to affordable health-care to millions of Michigan residents
- Defunding and privatizing Michigan’s public schools with voucher programs and charter schools
- Denying the science behind climate change and global warming, while also opposing the use of clean and renewable energy sources
- “Research” Institute or Lobbying Organization?:
Despite the fact that the legality of the Mackinac Center’s lobbying operations as a nonprofit has been called into question by U.S. Congressman Sander Levin, the ACLU and Progress Michigan, the Mackinac Center continues to run an extensive lobbying operation in order to pro-mote its corporate-backed special interest agenda. The report outlines how Governor Snyder has taken on several Mackinac agenda items in creating his own agenda, including attacks on workers’ pensions, rolling back corporate regulations and privatizing public services.
- Mackinac’s Dubious Claim of Being “Nonpartisan”:
Despite the Mackinac Center’s claim to be a “nonpartisan research and education institute,” the “think tank” has made at least two payments categorized in official records as political contributions, one to the Michigan Republican Party and another to the Livingston County Republi-can Committee. Both contributions are apparent violations of the Mackinac Center’s 501(c)(3) nonprofit status. Moreover, an analysis of campaign contributions made by Mackinac Center board members shows an overwhelming majority going to GOP candidates.
- Mackinac’s Role in Restricting Workers’ Rights:
For nearly all of its existence, the Mackinac Center has been a leading organization behind the call for anti-worker, so-called “Right to Work” legislation in Michigan. When Governor Snyder endorsed the measure in late 2012, the Mackinac Center soon took credit for its passage. Later, Dick DeVos – a longtime Mackinac supporter and one of the most notable corporate executives funding Michigan’s anti-worker campaigns – credited the Mackinac Center as one of the primary forces behind the push for “Right to Work” legislation. SPN also credited Mackinac, giving Mackinac President Joseph Lehman its 2013 “Roe Award” (named after SPN founder and anti-union businessman Thomas Roe) for the “policy achievement” of “seeing Michigan become a Right to-Work state.”
- Mackinac’s Agenda Primarily Benefits Its Donors, Not the People of Michigan:
The Mackinac Center is largely funded by right-wing special interest foundations, individuals and corporations, including the Koch brothers, the DeVos family, Exxon Mobil, the Bradley Foundation and the Walton family of Walmart. Not surprisingly, much of Mackinac’s agenda benefits the corporate and financial interests of its fun-ders and ALEC, including so-called Right to Work, lowered environmental standards and privatization.
- Despite Claims to Be Michigan-Focused, Mackinac Takes Its Cues from Shadowy Out-of-State Organizations:
In many ways, a Mackinac Center can be found in every state in the U.S. under a different name. That is because the Mackinac Center is an affiliate of the State Policy Network (SPN), a web of right-wing think tanks across the country. All SPN “think tanks” share a nationally-driven agenda with out-of-state right-wing organizations such as ALEC and Americans for Prosperity.
- Millions from Out-of-State, Koch-Funded Groups:
With over $9.5 mil-lion in net assets reported in 2011, the Mackinac Center operates as one of the largest, most well-funded and most active right-wing SPN state think tanks in the country. Much of this is due to the massive amount of funding Mackinac has received from two secretive Koch-funded groups called DonorsTrust and Donors Capital Fund, known as the “dark money ATM of the conservative movement.” The Donors groups, which keep the original funders hidden – adding another layer of secrecy – have contributed over $2.6 million to Mackinac since 2004.
- Mackinac’s Slanted “News Service”:
Like many SPN think tanks, the Mackinac Center is also an affiliate of the Tea Party-linked Franklin Center, a consortium of conservative “news” outlets in over 40 states that is funded in part by the Koch brothers. Through the Michigan Capitol Confidential, the Mackinac Center pushes its right-wing agenda behind the mask of “journalism.”
While this information is frightening in terms of what it means for true democracy in America, information is power. With this knowledge in hand, our ability to mitigate this corporate influence on our government and our laws is improved. We are fortunate the groups like the Center for Media and Democracy, Progress Now, and Progress Michigan are working hard to ensure that corporations and wealthy individuals do not turn our country into a corporatocracy where candidates are chosen by them, campaigns are massively funded by them, and marching orders to elected officials are issued by them so that they laws written by them are enacted.
Read the reports. Inform yourself. And then get active in whatever way you can to elect people into office who will help to reverse this anti-democratic, corporate takeover of our state and federal government.