On 98 Main Street, Winstead, Massachusetts, lies a pantry stocked with food, toiletries, and other essential items. A sign on the door notes: “Take only what you need and leave what you can.” Residents of Winstead built the pantry in March after realizing some of their neighbors were struggling to make ends meet. A plight felt by many Americans, the coronavirus and related economic shutdowns left some Winstead families without a way to support themselves.
It’s in times of crisis that we see communities like Winstead rise up to help those in need. In these past few months, we’ve seen students deliver groceries to vulnerable seniors, distilleries make hand sanitizer, and hotels offer rooms to healthcare workers. It’s often the residents and businesses in our communities that produce the best solutions to local problems.
That’s why State Policy Network awarded grants to help state think tanks drive local-level solutions to the coronavirus pandemic. SPN’s Community Engagement Grants encouraged state think tanks to host constructive debates, build consensus, and develop practical community-based solutions that lead to meaningful public health and economic policy responses to the coronavirus.
SPN awarded grants to 14 state think tanks across the country. Below are brief descriptions of their campaigns to engage with communities during these difficult times.
In May, the Alaska Policy Forum (APF) worked with a research firm to design and conduct a public opinion survey of Alaskans. Among other results, the survey found that despite the hardship Alaskans have faced due to the coronavirus, two-thirds of respondents are still in favor of spending cuts to address the state deficit. APF shared the results of the survey at a webinar and invited legislators, members of the state administration, 2020 candidates, community leaders, and other nonprofits. Forty-seven people, including many legislators and their staff, attended the event. The survey is shaping legislative conversations and positioned APF as a source of unbiased, relevant, and timely information in the state.
In these past few months, we’ve seen some of the most rapid and exciting improvements in innovation in the history of the world. As the crisis continues, much more transformation is needed to address our ever-changing needs. The Beacon Center of Tennessee is encouraging state policymakers to create an environment that allows Tennessee to become the nation’s ground zero for the creation of these needed innovations. With this community engagement grant, Beacon conducted two focus groups, one with women and one with men, to see exactly where Tennesseans stand on innovation freedom, particularly in the age of the coronavirus. In addition to those two focus groups, Beacon commissioned a small online poll of 100 people to get their thoughts on Beacon’s upcoming innovation freedom agenda. The grant allowed Beacon to understand where their audiences stand on innovation, coronavirus restrictions, regulation, and the government’s role in business. Those opinions will help Beacon promote their innovation freedom agenda in the most successful way possible.
The Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy is working with The Zoldak Agency to expedite a statistically representative poll in West Virginia on issues relating to the COVID-19 response. These questions will include polling responses for effective ways on dealing with any COVID-related FY2021 fiscal deficit, gubernatorial response to COVID, regulatory relief for businesses and healthcare providers, education and education choice, and tax relief in the coming years. Cardinal is using these results to identify policies the organization needs to focus on in order to best help West Virginians recover from pandemic.
Center of the American Experiment produced three town hall events on the COVID-19 epidemic via Zoom. The first event featured American Experiment economist John Phelan and Chris Phelan, chairman of the Department of Economics at the University of Minnesota. They discussed the economic consequences of Minnesota’s shutdown orders, and how the state can best revive its economy. The second event featured the South Dakota Governor, who discussed her state’s response to the COVID-19 epidemic. The third event featured Avik Roy of the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity and Karin Housley, a Minnesota state Senator who chairs the Senate’s Committee on Family Care and Aging. Almost 9,000 people attended the three town halls. The events played a key role in shaping the organization’s policy recommendations and messaging on the coronavirus.
The Civitas Institute used the grant to identify the impact the coronavirus has had on the agriculture industry within North Carolina, particularly as it relates to small and often direct-to-consumer producers. From meat processing disruptions to the early closure of restaurants within North Carolina, government overreach and unnecessary intervention have crippled many farms and family businesses and, in some cases, have discussions of bankruptcy at the forefront. Through an online survey, Civitas found the greatest challenge for small farmers has been arcane regulations regarding labeling and location of sales. This is the first time anyone has reached out to farmers in North Carolina to hear about their challenges so that public policy solutions can be crafted and delivered. With this data in hand, Civitas can now develop policy solutions to help farmers flourish through open markets and fewer regulations and roadblocks.
The Empire Center created and circulated a 20-question survey to New York business owners, which has now positioned Empire as an advocate of the New York business community. These owners think freezing property taxes, reforming workers’ compensation laws, reforming liability insurance laws, and removing state taxes on health insurance premiums and electricity will help their businesses weather the effects of the coronavirus crisis and continue to contribute to the health of their communities. With this information, Empire will work with policymakers to find ways to ease the burden on business owners. Empire is also building relationships with these business owners so that they, too, can become advocates for the policy changes that would help their businesses succeed.
Empower Mississippi conducted a survey of Mississippi businesses to find out how the coronavirus pandemic has affected them. With an understanding of the challenges Mississippi business are facing, Empower developed policy recommendations to help employers get back to business and unleash the productive capabilities of Mississippi’s workforce. After closing the survey, Empower published the results and promoted the survey through a targeted media campaign including online content, targeted ads, and op-eds. The survey allowed Empower to grow their influence with policymakers as well as the business community in Mississippi.
The Grassroot Institute of Hawaii used the grant to focus on community building with local organizations, including left-of-center groups. Grassroot partnered with The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest and Common Cause Hawaii to challenge the state’s restrictions on transparency. Grassroot also hosted forums with prominent local attorneys Robert Thomas and Jeffrey Portnoy to discuss the state’s restrictions on civil liberties. In addition, Grassroot collaborated with prominent Democratic state senators who wanted to get Hawaii’s economy back on track. Finally, Grassroot continued to promote the findings of their report, “Road Map to Prosperity,” in the local media. These efforts helped to shift the mainstream local media narrative towards criticizing the government’s policies. It also better positioned Grassroot as a trusted, independent leader in Hawaii communities and enabled the organization to double subscribers to their email lists.
The James Madison Institute (JMI) hosted four virtual town hall meetings with prominent policy experts on how Florida can recover from the economic and health impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. These town halls helped JMI reach new audiences and added many new contacts to their database as individuals signed up for the town hall meetings or requested membership or other resources. The grant helped strengthen JMI’s voice as the premier free-market think tank in Florida. Policymakers, organizations, and individuals are reaching out to the Institute even more for policy solutions to the many challenges brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
The John Locke Foundation hosted a three-part town hall series focused on Carolina Rebound, their game plan to drive economic recovery in the post-COVID world. The Foundation reached nearly 9,000 people, including business and community leaders, experts, and residents in more than 100 cities across North Carolina. Most importantly, the Foundation reached 509 new subscribers who have never engaged with the organization before. Through these town halls, the Foundation further cemented their reputation for providing fair and honest debate.
Kansas Policy Institute (KPI) surveyed local businesses to assess how they were dealing with the coronavirus crisis. The survey found 74 percent believed the closing of non-essential businesses was too restrictive, and 76 percent of the 139 businesses surveyed were fearful or uncertain that there will be permanent closures of businesses within their industry. The survey strengthened KPI’s relationship with the National Federation of Independent Business and positioned KPI as a leader in Kansas.
The Mississippi Center for Public Policy (MCPP) profiled 20 business owners who had been impacted by the coronavirus lockdowns as well as those who were stepping up to serve their communities in this time of crisis. MCPP profiled individuals who owned and operated ice cream parlors and hair salons, catfish farms and bars, jean factories, and distilleries. Each story highlighted a different angle of the ongoing COVID-19 policy crisis in Mississippi. Arbitrary decisions have cost entrepreneurs their entire livelihoods. These personal stories reached and connected with a broad audience across the state. Many were picked up by local network affiliates, regional news outlets, and were shared broadly by MCPP’s Facebook group of almost 6,000 people.
The Platte Institute hosted five virtual property tax town halls. Almost 300 people registered for the town hall series, increasing Platte’s owned audience and expanding its reach into regions of the state that would be difficult to connect with through other venues during the pandemic. The town halls have also generated more than a dozen media hits in Western, Central, Northeast, and Southeast Nebraska markets, including print, radio, TV and online coverage of the events. This was the first time grassroots audiences and some media outlets have had the opportunity to hear from Platte’s staff, at length, about their thoughts on the tax issues impacting the state.
The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) conducted a survey of 556 Wisconsin adults to understand their response to messaging about the pandemic and potential policy solutions for rebuilding and reopening the state’s economy. Many of the findings of the poll were not what WILL anticipated. Committed to sharing accurate information, WILL released the results, helping the organization gain credibility with the media and public.