The Bob Williams Awards for Outstanding Policy Achievement recognize state think tanks doing exceptional work to create and disseminate credible policy research and ideas that will help states implement free-market solutions and expand personal freedom and opportunity for all Americans.
Just as each state is unique, so are the think tanks across the Network. The Bob Williams Awards celebrate wins and innovative approaches across a variety of states, organizational sizes and structures, and political and cultural environments. SPN is pleased to announce the top three finalists in each category: Most Influential Research, Best Issue Campaign, Biggest Home State Win, and Biggest Win.
Voting to determine the winner in each category closed Friday, August 9. The winners will be announced at SPN’s 27th Annual Meeting in Colorado Springs, CO on October 29-November 1, 2019.
Most Influential Research
This category recognizes the organization whose original research achieved a high level of influence in academia, media, or policy-making arenas. 2019 finalists in this category demonstrated a high level of research quality and impact, with the research ultimately achieving some degree of a policy victory.
Center of the American Experiment: Saving Minnesotans from a costly electricity mandate
When Minnesota lawmakers proposed a 100 percent renewable electricity mandate, the Center of the American Experiment was the only opposing voice. Nevertheless, thanks to its sound research, the Center’s lone voice was a persuasive one. In conjunction with the release of its “Doubling Down on Failure” report, which detailed the massive costs involved and the lack of any measurable environmental beneﬁt, the Center launched a multi-media outreach campaign to lawmakers and residents and successfully raised public awareness of potential downsides. The mandate passed the Minnesota House but failed on a bipartisan basis in the Minnesota Senate.
Mackinac Center for Public Policy: Laying groundwork for occupational licensing reforms
Michigan workers and consumers pay a steep price for occupational licensing laws, yet reform had been stymied by a lack of comprehensive research. Mackinac’s first-in-the-state study quantiﬁed the burden that Michigan carried as one of the heavier licensed states, both in number of occupations licensed and the restrictions included in those regulations. This detailed information gave lawmakers a starting point to pursue reform, as well as proposed solutions, and the state has become a leader in licensing reform.
Empire Center: Uncovering corruption and abuse in the Metropolitan Transportation Authority
New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority has been struggling financially—to the point where fares were increased and state lawmakers passed a congestion pricing plan to raise more revenue for the system. As part of its SeeThroughNY transparency project, the Empire Center examined MTA’s overtime costs and discovered that these attempts to generate revenue were no match for the agency’s skyrocketing payroll costs. The Center released the payroll data, showing that MTA needed to rein in its spending instead of asking New Yorkers to hand over more of their hard-earned money through higher fares and tolls. The project ignited debate over the MTA’s operations and garnered nearly 600 media mentions in prominent outlets, including The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the New York Post. The research has even led to internal time tracking changes at the MTA and a federal probe of the agency.
Best Issue Campaign
This category recognizes organizations that ran exceptional issue education campaigns. Finalists in this category demonstrated strategic thinking, exemplary use of outreach tactics, ability to reach target audiences, and team alignment.
Empower Mississippi: #Waitlisted
Despite statewide support, Mississippi lawmakers stalled additional funding for the state’s Education Scholarship Accounts (ESAs), and several hundred special needs students were stuck on waiting lists. Empower Mississippi created a #Waitlisted campaign centered around the stories of these students, their families, and their unique education challenges and needs. The campaign showed policymakers how their inaction was limiting opportunities for these students, and it encouraged policymakers to expand the ESA program in the last week of the legislative session.
Foundation for Government Accountability: Waivers Gone Wild
During the economic crisis, waivers provided a temporary pause on work requirements so that welfare recipients who were already struggling would not find themselves worse off. Since then, federal loopholes have allowed states to use these waivers to game the system and trap able-bodied adults in a cycle of government dependency. FGA built a multi-media campaign around the release of their “Waivers Gone Wild” reports, which raised national awareness of these loopholes and emphasized the need to rein in waiver abuse so that the food stamp program can adequately serve the truly needy and empower able-bodied adults to move from welfare to work. The campaign employed email, social media, op-eds, and outreach to educate lawmakers, journalists, and the public about this issue. As a result, the Trump Administration proposed a rule to curb abuse of the work requirement loopholes.
Independence Institute: Fix Our Damn Roads
If there’s one thing Colorado voters can agree on, it’s that the state’s road system is in dire need of repair. When the Denver Chamber of Commerce initiated Proposition 110—a ballot measure for a 21 percent sales tax increase to fund transit, roads, and slush fund for cities—the Independence Institute decided it was time to give voters another option. After all, Colorado has abundant surplus funds—enough to cover road repairs if policymakers were to re-prioritize less than two percent of the state budget to roads. The Institute launched an alternative ballot measure and campaign entitled “Fix Our Damn Roads” to help voters understand that this core function of state government did not require raising taxes or fees. In the end, the Institute’s campaign defeated Proposition 110 by a significant margin of 60% to 40%, achieving its top objective of protecting taxpayers from an unnecessary tax increase.
Biggest Home State Win
This category, introduced in 2019, recognizes organizations that achieved significant policy wins in any jurisdiction in their home states: local governmentt, executive, judicial, legislative, etc. Finalists were selected based on significance of the victory and how crucial the organization’s contribution was.
Commonwealth Foundation: Expanding school choice to 15,000 more students
Thanks to the Foundation’s persistent outreach over several years, tax credit scholarships have shifted from an obscure topic to a consistent point of discussion among Pennsylvania parents, educators, lawmakers, and the media. Despite the governor’s strong opposition to school choice, the Foundation’s research, op-eds, and student stories built the support needed to overturn the governor’s veto and increase funding for these programs by $30 million so that 15,000 more kids could benefit from school choice.
Mississippi Center for Public Policy: Advancing the nation’s first state-based donor privacy reform
Mississippi is widely recognized as one of the most charitable states in America, and giving generously to charitable causes is a uniquely Mississippi value. When donor privacy came under attack, the Mississippi Center for Public Policy educated lawmakers about the ways donor disclosure laws endanger individuals’ right to free speech and association. MCPP also published op-eds, gave speeches, and made media appearances in order to build public support on this issue. Mississippi made history in 2019 by enacting the ﬁrst state law to proactively protect the anonymity of donors who give to a wide range of nonproﬁts. Thanks to its leadership in passing comprehensive donor privacy law, Mississippi has paved the way for other states to implement similar protections and preserve the First Amendment rights that are fundamental to our democracy.
Washington Policy Center: Stopping a capital gains tax with a coordinated issue campaign
In 2019, Washington Policy Center defeated two attempts to impose income taxes in Washington. In winning a public records lawsuit against the City of Seattle, WPC uncovered evidence that the City of Seattle knew their income tax was illegal when they passed it. Statewide, lawmakers were attempting to pass a new capital gains income tax by calling it an “excise tax” to get around the state’s constitutional ban on a graduated income tax. WPC launched a marketing campaign that included reports, videos, op-eds, and educational handouts—all designed to educate residents on why a capital gains tax is an income tax. WPC’s message reached the public through extensive media coverage, and WPC’s educational efforts were so effective that lawmakers even used the Center’s language and online resources when debating the proposed tax. WPC’s campaign ultimately led to the defeat of the capital gains income tax.
This category recognizes the organization whose effort was instrumental toward securing a significant policy victory this year in one or more states or at the national level. 2019 finalists achieved policy victories that could model solutions for, set precedents for, or otherwise have impact well beyond their states.
The Buckeye Institute: Rescinding an Obama-era rule so that states have more choice and flexibility in their healthcare programs
In 2015, the Obama Administration took a one-size-fits-all approach to healthcare in the states, limiting states’ ability to innovate within section 1332 of the Affordable Care Act. This, in turn, limited Americans’ access to affordable health insurance. The Buckeye Institute developed the groundbreaking idea that states could use 1332 waivers to reform healthcare, and they worked closely with government officials to develop and refine this concept. As a result of Buckeye’s ongoing efforts, the Trump Administration rescinded the Obama-era guidance in 2018 and replaced it with new guidance that prioritizes giving states more choice and ﬂexibility.
Libertas Institute: Passing the nation’s first digital privacy law
The US Supreme Court has long held that individuals don’t have an expectation of privacy in information they surrender to a third party. Based on this logic, law enforcement entities have been able to access all citizens’ digital information without a warrant. Libertas Institute spearheaded a campaign to change this in Utah, and after a two-year eﬀort, the Institute persuaded the Legislature to unanimously adopt reforms that require law enforcement to obtain a warrant for a person’s data. This first-of-its-kind law received significant national media attention and set a precedent for other states to follow.
Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty: Defending a professor’s free speech and setting a precedent for free speech on campus
Across the country, First Amendment rights and the academic freedom of students and faculty at American universities are threatened by ideologies prefer to censor ideas rather than debate them civilly. When Dr. John McAdams, a professor at Marquette University, was suspended for publishing a criticism of another faculty member’s classroom censorship, the Institute got involved, defending McAdams’ rights and taking his case all the way to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of McAdams, and more importantly, set a precedent for campus free speech—one that guarantees free speech and academic freedom protect multiple and minority viewpoints, not just perspectives that are popular.
This year’s finalists were chosen by a selection committee using the criteria for each award category. Winners will determined by the number of votes received.