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 five categories: Best Issue Campaign, Best State Based Litigation, 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 31st Annual Meeting in Chicago.
While some of the wins below include work on education, observant readers may notice that several of the most prominent education wins achieved by our Network aren’t included below. We at SPN recognize the tremendous progress this Network made in advancing education reform this year. Because these education wins were so numerous and involved such large coalitions, they will primarily be recognized and celebrated separately from the Bob Williams Awards.
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.
Caesar Rodney Institute: American Coalition for Ocean Protection
Like many of our Network’s think tanks in the northeast, the Caesar Rodney Institute (CRI) in Delaware has long worked to resist the region’s dangerous appetites for government intervention. Much of their recent work has focused on Federal energy projects. Starting in 2019, CRI launched a “Save our Beach View” campaign focused on resisting a federal wind farm initiative to build offshore wind projects along the coast from Maine to South Carolina. CRI’s initial campaign focused on beach property owners in Delaware, and helped elevate these property owners’ concerns to local, state, and even federal policymakers. This eventually led to the announcement of delays to the Coastal Delaware Windfarm. Taking this momentum, CRI set up the American Coalition for Ocean Protection (ACOP), which helped to replicate their efforts in other beach communities. Initially started with three members in three states, the coalition has now reached nineteen members in nine states, and it includes six Network members. This coalition has replicated and scaled the earlier CRI tactics, and some members have reached over 500,000 signatures in state petitions resisting offshore wind projects. On March 30, 2023, Congress passed a bipartisan amendment calling for the US General Accountability Office (GAO) to begin an independent, thorough analysis of the impact of offshore wind projects on whales and other marine life, commercial and recreational fishing, tourism, and military use and navigation/vessel traffic, as well as the impacts of hurricanes and other severe weather on offshore wind projects. Then most recently, on June 15, 2023, the GAO announced that the analysis had begun.
Foundation for Government Accountability: Extending Legal Victory to Help States Push Back
In March 2021, President Biden signed Executive Order 14019, titled “Promoting Access to Voting.” The stated intent of this order was to encourage executive agencies to submit a plan to “promote voter registration and voter participation.” However, many were concerned that the inherent results of this effort will be driven towards voters the Biden administration thinks likely to vote for his party, all funded with tax dollars. The Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA) submitted three separate Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to the Department of Justice (DOJ) related to this executive order and the strategic plan guiding it, and the DOJ failed to provide those documents in the time provided by the FOIA. The DOJ instead argued that releasing the documents would “confuse the public.” So, FGA sued the DOJ, and after meandering through levels of the courts eventually the DOJ was compelled to turn over their documents. Building on the momentum of their legal victory, FGA has since launched a multi-state campaign to encourage multiple state legislatures to adopt reforms that protect the states’ constitutional authority over administering elections, and to provide state executive branches with the legal ability to push back on any federal efforts to drive voter registration and participation.
Texas Public Policy Foundation: Promoting Choice in Education
The Texas Public Policy Foundation’s (TPPF) top legislative objective in the 88th Texas Legislature was to empower parents through education freedom. TPPF has conducted research, engaged with policymakers, hosted local events, and communicated through a variety of digital platforms to make a compelling case. Their campaign was centered around the following principles that should be present in every education system to accommodate the diverse and unique needs of each family: 1) Choice for where parents send their children, 2) Quality education that prepares children for the future, 3) Transparency in curriculum and educational materials, and 4) Respect for parents by school officials. In a culmination of their efforts, Texas has become a leader in the “parental rights” movement, and the state senate passed an education reform package that strengthens the state’s parental rights, provides a respectful grievance process for dissatisfied parents, creates an open enrollment system, and that creates an Education Savings Account program.
Recognizes the organization whose litigative efforts at the state and local level help to advance the cause of free markets and federalism. Finalists were selected based on measures of execution (not necessarily a court victory), impact of the court case on the present legal landscape, and how much the case could advance other Network efforts in the future.
Mackinac Center for Public Policy: Novel Legal Strategy Exposes PPP Fraud
The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) was one of the many massive expenditures to come out of Congress during the COVID-19 pandemic. It was a program designed to offset close-down costs for businesses, and was messaged as helping the “little guy.” Public sector unions were explicitly not included in the PPP, but that didn’t stop the Michigan Education Association (MEA) and its health insurance partner from fraudulently collecting $12.5 million in PPP loans. Compared to the average of $126,000 taken home by 127,000 eligible businesses in Michigan, this makes the MEA part of the top 0.001% in terms of dollar amount collected through the PPP. Fortunately, it didn’t take long for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy (Mackinac) to help taxpayers, seek justice. When Mackinac first came across this egregious violation of PPP, they could have scored easy points but made a minimal difference by publishing the information and bashing the MEA publicly. But, instead, they filed a lawsuit that created a federal seal on the case, preventing them from publicly talking about the case while they pursued it in a legal system filled with MEA financed candidates and appointees — including the Assistant U.S. Attorney General who prosecuted their case. This novel strategy – a first for the Network – yielded dividends. Rather than being painted as a partisan or biased fight in the media, the clear-cut nature of the legal violations caused the MEA to quickly pursue a settlement, which resulted in the MEA repaying the loans, paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines from the Department of Justice, and covering Mackinac’s legal fees.
The Buckeye Institute: Fighting Unfair Tax Collection Schemes
Work from home presents a number of challenges to existing models, especially when it comes to taxes. For instance, if a worker lives in one place, but works for a company headquartered elsewhere, what jurisdiction collects the taxes? Many jurisdictions have existing laws allowing taxes on non-resident workers, such as existing laws in Ohio, but those restrictions often include requirements that the work be done in the jurisdiction collecting the taxes. Basically, the spirit of the law is that taxes can only be collected on a worker because they are enjoying municipal services like police protection or public roads. This logic doesn’t easily extend to virtual work though. So, during the COVID-19 pandemic, as Ohio’s policies were mandating workers to stay home, lawmakers tried to find a way to collect taxes. The state legislature passed Assembly Bill 197, which not only allowed taxes to be collected from virtual workers in violation of the spirit of the existing laws, but far more egregiously the bill also allowed workers to be taxed for their work from home as if it was performed in specific offices. Suspiciously enough, these offices were often located in higher tax brackets than the workers’ homes. The Buckeye Institute immediately moved to resist this overreach, identifying eleven different plaintiffs and participating in six separate cases challenging the law. Several of these cases have reached the Ohio Supreme Court. While some of these cases are still pending, the legal challenges are already shaping a national narrative, and bringing attention to a looming problem of virtual workers being vulnerable to predatory tax collection schemes with different standards than those applied to non-virtual workers.
Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty: Wisconsin Election Commission Dropbox Lawsuit
Wisconsin elections are supervised by 1,850 municipal clerks, who are in turn supervised by the Wisconsin Election Commission (WEC). The WEC is an executive agency, created by legislative act, which has a long history of administering elections in ways that run counter to existing state law. The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) has filed several lawsuits in the past against WEC to force them to comply with the law as set forth by the legislature. In June 2021, WILL filed a lawsuit against WEC yet again, this time on behalf of two Waukesha County voters challenging a WEC decision to allow unsupervised ballot drop boxes, despite there being no law or statute allowing that to happen. The issue wasn’t whether or not drop boxes were a valid form of voting, but rather that without a statute allowing for those boxes the agency was in effect writing laws with its policies and practices. The lawsuit worked its way through the courts, eventually landing at the Wisconsin Supreme Court which sided with WILL. The decision strengthened checks and balances by affirming the supremacy of legislative bodies to make laws, and the requirement for executive agencies to follow those laws without making up their own.
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.
Cardinal Institute: The Largest Tax Cut in West Virginia History
The last time West Virginia made any significant income tax change was in the 1980s. That is, until 2023. The Cardinal Institute for West Virginia helped usher in what was dubbed the “largest tax cut in West Virginia history,” saving taxpayers over $700 million in the first year alone. Throughout the 2023 legislative session, Cardinal emphasized the need for sound tax reform and the principles that should inform it, encouraged lawmakers to build on prior transformational reforms, and stressed the urgency of the moment through op-eds, informational interviews with experts, and participation in a roundtable hosted by Governor Jim Justice. This culminated in a 21.25% across the board reduction in personal income tax rates as well as rebates on some personal property and small business taxes. The reform also includes revenue triggers for further reductions, which puts West Virginia on a pathway to eliminating the personal income tax.
Iowans for Tax Relief Foundation: Setting a National Standard for Property Tax Reform
Iowans for Tax Relief Foundation (ITRF) began working on the critical issue of property tax reform as soon as the 2022 legislative session was complete. They collaborated with Network partners, placed op-eds, conducted research and promoted their findings, targeted outreach efforts to key audiences, and positioned themselves as a go-to resource for lawmakers. Through all of that activity ITRF not only elevated property tax issues to legislators, but helped inform the eventually successful legislative package in a way that kept it pro-taxpayer while avoiding policy missteps and unintended consequences. House File 718 curbs the growth of local governments in a responsible manner and begins reducing property taxes next year. It also provides additional relief for older Iowans and military families and requires property tax bill transparency. In total, the bill is estimated to provide $100 million in relief. In addition to further raising their profile within the Capitol and in communities across the state, ITRF has also positioned themselves to play a major role in future property tax reforms and further conservative policy discussions. Iowa’s property tax reform has set a national standard and given other states a roadmap for fiscally responsible reform.
Platte Institute: Lowering Taxes and Empowering Future Education Choice
Prior to this year’s reforms, Nebraska has had the 7th highest property tax rate in the nation, the highest income tax in the corridor between North Dakota and Texas, and has lacked basic programs from other states like tax credit scholarships. Nebraska was the last state in the country without any sort of school choice program. That all changed in 2023 though, with a historic and generational tax package that puts Nebraska back in a competitive income tax space, reforms the state’s property tax system, and that enables the first school choice legislation in the state’s history. These reforms were part of a long standing effort by the Platte Institute to educate lawmakers and citizens about the competitive environment the state was in, the consequences of their bad tax policies, and the solutions that would help the state thrive. And, in 2023, many of their proposed possible solutions were passed into law, constituting the largest combined tax cuts in the history of Nebraska. In total, the reforms that passed will save taxpayers $1 billion a year in income taxes and $500 million in property taxes, all while creating a further $25 million in accessible funds for tax credit scholarships.
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.
Beacon Center of Tennessee: Making the Right-to-Work Constitutional
Tennessee voters did something historic in 2022. They voted — by a 40-point margin across political, geographic, and demographic lines — to enshrine the Tennessean Right-to-Work in the state’s constitution. The Beacon Center of Tennessee (Beacon) has long advocated for the state’s right to work laws, and began calling for a constitutional amendment back in 2019. Tennessee is a bastion for migration because of its strong business and work climate, but Beacon Center understood that eventually the migration could cause political changes that would erode the very laws making Tennessee such a viable destination. It’s a real Catch-22 for states that are thriving, but Beacon’s foresight led to a strong, focused, and eventually successful campaign over multiple years. Through polling and their community engagement efforts, Beacon was able to show lawmakers that the constitutional amendment was wildly popular with voters, and help get the ball rolling on what would be a lengthy but eventually massively successful constitutional amendment campaign. Beacon’s efforts didn’t stop there though. They also worked to provide messaging demonstrating the non-political nature of the right to work, which showed its benefits to all citizens and helped to drive what was eventually a voting majority in every county in the state.
Frontier Institute: Housing Deregulation Based on Previous Research
Montana has long faced an unsustainable rise in housing prices. Fortunately, the Frontier Institute (Frontier) has focused on tackling this since they began, with research like the Montana Zoning Atlas highlighting the many government-caused problems in home prices. This research has previously been nominated as a finalist for an SPN Communications Excellence Award and for a Bob Williams Award, and Frontier could have easily rested on their laurels hoping someone else did something with their research. Instead, they kept working, and even got Montana Governor Gianforte to call on the legislature to adopt the reforms called for in their atlas. This year, they produced even more research, crafted talking points around specific solutions, conducted digital marketing across several platforms, and helped to assemble a bipartisan coalition to get these reforms across the board. So it should come as little surprise that in 2023 Montana passed a massive package of pro-growth housing reforms, nearly all of which were Frontier Institute priorities. Dubbed the Montana Miracle by multiple national outlets, this massive package of reforms truly sets a standard for the nation.
Palmetto Promise Institute: Incremental No More – Repealing South Carolina’s CON Law
Years ago now, Palmetto Promise Institute (PPI) leaders, along with physicians and legislators, stood in the rotunda of the South Carolina Statehouse. That group called for repeal of the state’s Certificate of Need (CON) law, one of the most restrictive in the nation. Progress was slow, as it usually is in a state known for its incrementalism. But, using lessons learned from many in this Network — telling patient stories, training legislative champions, pounding social media, podcasting, op-eds, original research, sharing research and best practices from allies across the country, and forming an unbreakable coalition of national and state groups — Certificate of Need was repealed. Considering how many topics were covered by the state’s CON law, and the level of opposition to its repeal, one of the nation’s foremost CON experts Dr. Matt Mitchell has said that “South Carolina’s full repeal was the most significant in nearly a decade.” For PPI, it was a seven-year fight with numerous setbacks along the way, but through dedication to a coherent strategy, the bill repealing CON picked up a stunning degree of momentum late, passing the Senate 30-6 and the House unanimously.
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.
Badger Institute: Mandate for Madison
To inspire Wisconsin policymakers to see and seize new opportunities, the Badger Institute published their 300-page Mandate for Madison, modeled after the Heritage Foundation’s Mandate for Leadership policy playbook. This research covered K-12 education, tax restructuring, wasteful spending of federal funds in Wisconsin and the push for stricter oversight, public safety, free-market health care options, workforce participation, welfare reform, infrastructure funding and more. Badger first released pieces of the research to help policymakers and their audiences focus on specific items and solutions, then later published the coherent set before the budgeting session so it could have maximum impact. The Legislature is debating the biennial budget right now and their research and advocacy is having a big impact in the state capitol of Madison. Because of the relevance, quality, and timing of their research, Badger Institute scholars were asked to testify on several pieces of legislation and to participate in legislative taskforces like the 2022 Legislative Council Study Committee on Occupational Licensing.
Institute for Reforming Government: Auditing COVID Education Funds
Wisconsin, like many states, allocated billions of dollars in state and federal funds towards education during the COVID-19 pandemic. As the pandemic unwound and things returned to “normal,” the Institute for Reforming Government (IRG) took it upon themselves to see how all that money had been spent through a well-timed audit. Their January 2023 report was revealing, with findings including: that only 34% of the funds had been allocated, that some of the largest school districts like Milwaukee’s had allocated $0 while other smaller districts were wildly over budget, and that only 6% of mental health focused funds went towards mental health. The research was so incendiary that by March 2023, allocations had already grown to 63% as school districts were forced to answer tough questions about all that money.
Georgia Public Policy Foundation: Government Regulation in the Price of a New Home
The rising price of housing is top of mind to many citizens and policymakers. Georgia Public Policy Foundation (GPPF) has long worked to tackle the root causes of high housing prices. In their latest research, “Government Regulation in the Price of a New Home: Georgia,” they conducted the first ever state-level replication of the National Association of Home Builders’ periodic survey of government regulatory costs. Through this research, they helped Georgia policymakers understand that the state was imposing 13% more cost on home-buyers than the national average, leading to multiple state-level bills designed to curb the excessive regulation. Furthermore, GPPF CEO Kyle Wingfield has since been asked to share the findings of the research with local governments and associations who are also interested in lowering housing costs.
Winners will be announced at the Annual Awards Night Dinner at SPN’s 31st Annual Meeting in Chicago.
If you would like to suggest any changes to the summaries above, or if you have any relevant information to share, please reach out directly to SPN’s Manager of Strategy Development Gabriel Green (email@example.com).