State Policy Network’s 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. The awards celebrate achievements in four categories: Best Issue Campaign, Biggest Home State Win, Biggest Win for Freedom, and Most Influential Research. SPN is proud to highlight these finalists and to share their success with the Network.
Winners will be announced at SPN’s 30th Annual Meeting in Atlanta.
Recognizes the organization that ran the highest quality issue education campaign. Finalists were selected based on measures of execution, not necessarily whether a win was achieved. Measures of execution include strategic thinking, exemplary use of outreach tactics, ability to reach target audiences, and team alignment.
Commonwealth Foundation: The Lifeline Scholarship Program
Commonwealth Foundation has worked for years to advance school choice reforms in Pennsylvania by seeking to overcome partisan divides that hamper positive school choice reforms. Due to their efforts, this year—for the first time in its history—the Pennsylvania House of Representatives passed a bill that would provide education scholarships to students. The Lifeline Scholarship Program, which would give nearly $7,000 to parents to spend on approved education expenses, passed the State House with bipartisan support in April. The scholarship later passed the Senate Education Committee and is now up for debate in Pennsylvania Senate. Commonwealth helped state leaders focus on what mattered most—students over partisan ties—so that Pennsylvania could give students access to the education options that best fit their needs. The work is not done yet, but they have already achieved a major win in generating bipartisan momentum behind the Lifeline Scholarship Program.
Foundation for Government Accountability: The Fight Against Medicaid Handcuffs
Included in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) was a little-known provision that severely restricted states’ ability to manage their Medicaid programs. To receive extra Medicaid funds, states had to opt into a set of “handcuffs” on their Medicaid program. These handcuffs increased the number of people who qualified for Medicaid, while revoking states’ ability to remove any ineligible recipients from their Medicaid rolls. The Foundation for Government Accountability’s research showed that these federal strings amounted to billions of wasted dollars, siphoning away resources from the most vulnerable and eroding state control over their own programs. So, FGA launched an issue campaign to promote their research to state leaders and educate them on why states needed to opt out of the expanded Medicaid program to better serve the people who needed Medicaid services most. This legislative session, Pennsylvania will debate a bill to end their participation in this program, and leaders in Wisconsin and Missouri have also begun working to restore their states’ control over their Medicaid programs.
Institute for Reforming Government: Wisconsin Should Eliminate the State Income Tax
Wisconsin has the ninth highest tax burden in the country, and it is losing in the state-based race to attract new residents with significantly lower tax burdens. Knowing this, the Institute for Reforming Government (IRG) worked to examine and understand what tax reforms Wisconsin would need to be more competitive. They landed on a proposal to eliminate the state’s income tax, raise the state’s sales tax by three percent, and preserve sales tax exemptions for items such as groceries. To accomplish this historic reform, IRG has begun building a coalition of local, state, and national leaders to champion their proposed tax solution. Through intensive research into the issues Wisconsinites care about, targeted messaging, and outreach to conservative leaders in the states, IRG has built a broad base of support for their plan among policymakers, media members, and grassroots influencers. Although the bill didn’t pass in 2022, IRG is well positioned to help Wisconsin become the tenth income tax-free state in 2023.
Kansas Policy Institute: Giving Kids a Fighting Chance
Too often in the education debate, parents, teachers, and lawmakers assume that their school can’t possibly be the problem. It’s a belief that makes championing reforms difficult–even in a state like Kansas, which has seen consistently declining student outcomes. To overcome this, the Kansas Policy Institute (KPI) put together their “Fighting Chance” campaign and toolkit. Their campaign includes resources designed for the exact audiences most likely to push for significant reform, such as parents. With these tools, parents can easily access information on topics like student performance, district employees’ pay, and school financial health. KPI’s campaign also equips these audiences with solutions that will help Kansas students achieve higher education outcomes. There’s more to come, but Fighting Chance is building the strong momentum necessary to lay the groundwork for significant reform.
Recognizes the organization that achieved a significant policy win in their home state. A win can come from any jurisdiction in the organization’s home state: local government, executive, judicial, legislative,etc. Finalists were selected based on the significance of the victory and how important the organization’s contribution was to the victory.
Alaska Policy Forum: Alaska Reads Act
On the last day of the state’s legislative session, Alaska achieved a historic victory in education reform when it passed the Alaska Reads Act. Alaskan students have historically lagged behind in reading, scoring last in the nation in a variety of analyses. That’s why, even though Alaska Policy Forum (APF) is a small organization, they have been on the forefront of education reform in Alaska for years, and championing a reform package to improve the state’s literacy outcomes since 2013. Through research, bi-partisan policymaker outreach and education, coalition-building, and public communication, APF paved the way for this life-changing reform to become a reality for parents and students. The Alaska Reads Act focuses on students younger than third grade—a stage that APF’s research shows is crucial for developing literacy. Because of APF’s tireless work and never-give-up attitude, the 40,000 K-3 students in Alaska’s schools now have a significantly improved shot at lifelong success.
Beacon Center of Tennessee: A Little Less Conversation…A Lot More Spending
For years, Tennessee has had one of the most complicated school funding formulas in the nation. Its complexity led to disengagement among parents and growing concern that the state’s massive education expenditures were not having the desired impact. Based on their track record of good policy ideas and their relationships with policymakers, Governor Bill Lee asked the Beacon Center to look into Tennessee’s education spending and recommend ways to improve it. Beacon’s research revealed that only 53% of the state’s spending reached the classroom—7% less than the national average. They also discovered that overall education spending had risen three percent since 2018, but administrative spending had increased by 13.5 %. Beacon recommended specific changes to the formula that would ensure that allocations were based on student numbers and not the numerous complicated variables of the old formula. Based on these recommendations, the Governor made fixing the state’s education funding formula a policy priority and named Beacon’s CEO Justin Owen as the state’s Fiscal Responsibility chairman to oversee much of that effort. Beacon not only grew their reputation in the state, but also helped lead the successful transition to a new student-centered funding formula for the single largest item in Tennessee’s budget.
John Locke Foundation: North Carolina’s First in Freedom Budget
Americans are facing growing economic uncertainty, with rising prices affecting all areas of life. If there were ever a time to reduce taxpayer burdens and expand economic freedom and opportunity, it’s now. It’s a good thing that for over a decade, the John Locke Foundation (Locke) has worked to lay the intellectual groundwork for a major budgeting victory in North Carolina. Through research and data analysis, Locke equipped policymakers with the tools they needed to make significant policy pivots leading to wiser, more effective spending. In addition to educating policymakers, Locke educated North Carolinians about the benefits of the reforms Locke has championed, and the consequences of the bad policies Locke has resisted. So, it should come as no surprise that Locke played a critical role in the passage of the 2021 First in Freedom Budget. This bipartisan budget was the first of its kind to be signed by Governor Roy Cooper, who has previously vetoed every other budget to reach his desk. This budget helps North Carolinians by: reducing the personal income tax rate from 5.25% to 3.99% by 2026, increasing the standard deduction, eliminating the state’s corporate income tax by 2029, holding the line on Medicaid expansion, expanding the Opportunity Scholarship Program for 19,000 lower-income families and Education Savings Accounts for families of special needs students, and reforming the state’s Emergency Management Act. Also, the budget accomplished all of this without proposing any new debt, all of which contributed to CNBC naming North Carolina America’s Top State for Business.
Texas Public Policy Foundation: Improving Texas’ Education Outcomes
After two years of education disruption, barely 40% of Texas students are reading and doing math at their expected grade level. The Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) has long championed better education outcomes, positioning them to offer solutions when they are needed most. TPPF leveraged their successful and extensive research and communications apparatus to engage, maintain, and grow support to defend and advance education reforms. Their experts delivered legislative testimony, placed strategic commentary and op-eds, and held events to raise awareness and support for education freedom reforms during Texas’ special session. Because of this multifaceted effort from TPPF, the Texas Legislature passed two significant pieces of legislation to empower Texan parents and students with transparency, quality, respect, and choice in education: Senate Bill 15 which expanded virtual learning options, and Senate Bill 3 which strengthened limitations on teaching things like Critical Race Theory.
Recognizes the organization whose effort was instrumental toward securing a significant policy victory this year. Wins can be single-state or multi-state outcome; offense or defense; state or national. Finalists were selected based on significance of the victory and how important the organization’s contribution was to the victory.
Empower Mississippi & Mississippi Center for Public Policy: Mississippi Tax Freedom Act
Mississippi has had a historically high tax burden. So when the state gained a “conservative supermajority” in 2015, it may have seemed like a simple task to reduce that burden. Instead, tax reform was an uphill battle. Confusing messaging about what tax reform meant and concerns that it might lead to a tax ‘swap’ meant conservative policymakers and commentators were hostile to the idea of any significant tax reform. Furthermore, despite a supermajority, the state’s conservative lawmakers have struggled to work together.
But, this Network doesn’t back down from hard things. That’s why the two state think tanks in Mississippi—Empower Mississippi and Mississippi Center for Public Policy—formed a coalition with additional state partners to champion the Mississippi Tax Freedom Act of 2022. Each organization played to its strengths, with their individual coalition roles tiered to their comparative advantages. Through the combination of their strengths, the coalition equipped policymakers with research and data on the benefits of lowering the income tax, encouraged further collaboration and partnership between lawmakers who hadn’t previously worked together, provided model legislation for those policymakers, cultivated a consistent public message through media outlets, and empowered public audiences to voice their support for the reforms. Because of their efforts, Mississippi not only passed a historic income tax cut, but they did so with the type of overwhelming and bipartisan support that makes further tax reform far more likely in the future.
Goldwater Institute: Resisting Tax Increases through the Courts
Through a campaign focused on class division and false information, special interests in Arizona recently convinced the people of Arizona to pass Proposition 208. This policy would have doubled the tax burden on small business owners and individuals making more than $250,000 a year. The Goldwater Institute challenged this proposition in the Arizona State Supreme Court on behalf of business owners, taxpayers, and legislators. They argued that the proposition violated the state’s limits on spending and taxation, and their case convinced the State Supreme Court to unanimously rule in Goldwater’s favor. After the case was sent back to a trial judge for a final ruling, the proposition was struck down in its entirety.
Mackinac Center for Public Policy: Indiana Strengthens Union Opt-Out Policy
When Indiana teachers review their union membership form this fall, and every year after, they’ll see something new written in bold text: A clear opportunity to understand and acknowledge their First Amendment rights to leave or refuse to join their teacher’s union, without fear of losing benefits or being exposed to retribution. This opportunity comes courtesy of the Mackinac Center’s tireless work with the Indiana legislature and Governor Eric J. Holcomb, who signed this reform into law in March 2022. This victory is the culmination of a two-year effort that began when the Indiana legislature passed a first-in-the-nation bill developed by the Mackinac Center’s Workers for Opportunity initiative.
Pacific Research Institute: Preventing Medicare-for-All
California has long been known for bad policies that send droves of its residents to other states. The Pacific Research Institute (PRI) has helped inform Californians and all other Americans of the consequences of these policies for years, with campaigns like Been There, Done That. This year, advocates in the state sought to ban private health insurance and mandate a “Medicare for all” style scheme in Assembly Bill 1400. Using their well-honed muscles for resisting bad ideas, PRI launched a full-blitz public awareness campaign. This effort revolved around positioning CEO Sally Pipes—a nationally renowned expert on healthcare policy—to publicly debate the pros and cons of this policy with the people advocating for it. PRI coordinated Pipes’ appearance on media programs to counter myths about the policy and spearheaded the messaging campaign about the dangers of Medicare for All. Most importantly, PRI demonstrated that there are better free-market solutions for delivering sustainable, high-quality healthcare at an affordable price. Because of PRI’s efforts, proponents of the bill pulled it from the Assembly before a vote could occur, citing a lack of public support.
Recognizes the organization whose original research achieved a high level of influence in academia, media, or policy-making arenas. Submissions described a piece of research—either a single publication or a closely related series of research publication—and finalists were selected based on the research publication’s impact.
American Experiment: Energy Research Defeats Build Back Better
When the Biden Administration assembled its “Build Back Better” plan, Democrat members of Congress forced the inclusion of a controversial energy policy known as the Clean Electricity Performance Program (CEPP). CEPP would have mandated that states steadily increase the use of wind and solar energy. The administration allocated $150 billion to the states to incentivize this shift, but their cost estimate could not stand up to the scrutiny of the American Experiment’s policy fellows. American Experiment’s experts had already developed the nation’s only comprehensive statistical model to accurately assess the full cost of a wind and solar energy transition. Opponents of Build Back Better asked American Experiment to calculate the full actual cost of CEPP requirements. By analyzing West Virginia and Arizona, American Experiment showed the Administration’s plan would be far more expensive than predicted, especially for states. Shortly after the research was released, Senator Manchin (D-WV) announced he would not support Build Back Better, and the legislation collapsed.
Freedom Foundation: Revealing Fraud in the Paycheck Protection Program
The Freedom Foundation analyzed the US Small Business Administration’s (SBA) database of nearly 12 million Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans. Through their research, the Foundation was the first to document that, between Congress’s creation of the PPP in March 2020 and passage of the American Rescue Plan in March 2021, 223 forgivable loans totaling $36.1 million were provided to labor unions and related organizations that were statutorily ineligible for the funds. In their report, Profiting from the Pandemic, the Foundation documented how White House staff alerted SBA officials as early as July 2020 that PPP loans were being inappropriately approved for labor unions, though the SBA took no apparent action to address the issue and continued to approve first and second loans to unions until PPP eligibility was formally expanded to unions in March 2021.“ The research received widespread media coverage, formed the basis of formal complaints to the SBA Inspector General and the Department of Justice’s National Center for Disaster Fraud, and prompted an ongoing congressional investigation.
Frontier Institute: Montana Zoning Atlas
Like much of America, Montana is in the midst of a housing affordability crisis. In March 2022, Frontier Institute published the Montana Zoning Atlas report, an interactive resource demonstrating how strict local zoning regulations worsen Montana’s housing shortage by making it difficult to build affordable types of homes. In addition, the Montana Zoning Atlas provided policy solutions for both state and local governments so officials could address the regulatory barriers blocking increases in the supply of affordable housing. The report has since made waves across Montana, provoking responses and calls-to-action from major newspaper editorial boards, legislators, local officials, and other leaders across the political spectrum.
Georgia Center for Opportunity: Highlighting the Harm of COVID Restrictions
To better understand the impact of a state’s overall COVID-19 caseload compared to their policy responses – such as lockdowns or capacity restrictions – the Georgia Center for Opportunity (GCO) undertook a massive study. GCO used an abridged version of the Stringency Index from the Coronavirus Government Response Tracker of the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University, as well as a GCO-created severity index, to measure a subset of pandemic-related government actions. The study showed significant statistical correlation between the severity of a government’s economic restrictions and negative employment impacts – such as increased unemployment, business closures, and loss of hours and wages – even more than a year after the pandemic began. Meanwhile, caseload and measures of virus severity showed no correlation to employment totals. This research has already been used to work with several state legislators on model legislation that prepares Georgia to respond to future health crises more appropriately—without jeopardizing people’s economic wellbeing.