This year, Thanksgiving will take place against a backdrop of a pandemic, a contested presidential election, statewide shutdowns, and soaring unemployment.
Despite these challenges, millions of Americans will gather with their families and list all the things they are thankful for. But with such a bleak picture surrounding us, it can be difficult to focus on the good. If you’re struggling to come up with something outside of your usual list, here’s one for you: state think tanks.
It’s probably not the first thing that came to mind, but state think tanks are helping millions of Americans each day by developing local solutions to our country’s most pressing problems. From easing tax burdens to defending civil liberties and increasing education options for families, state think tanks are solving problems from the bottom up, giving communities these reasons to be thankful in the midst of a challenging, uncertain year:
1. Healthcare expanded when Americans needed it most
As the coronavirus took hold, State Policy Network’s Healthcare Working Group (HCWG) was ready with five key policy recommendations, which states adopted immediately. The HCWG helped pass reforms that removed restrictions preventing hospitals from getting much-needed medical equipment and hospital beds. They opened doors for Americans to use telemedicine so patients could see doctors from home during the pandemic. And they increased the supply of medical providers through reforms that expanded the number of healthcare responders and allowed them to work across state lines.
- The Buckeye Institute helped Ohio permanently expand access to telehealth and cut needless government regulations that limit the ability of medical professionals to provide care to patients.
- April Hynes, a mother of three from southeastern Pennsylvania, needed to work with a physician across state lines through telemedicine to get an expert medical opinion on the continued treatment of her stage-four cancer. But April’s hospital told her that the Pennsylvania Governor banned this practice. So, as the Commonwealth Foundation team fought for expanded telemedicine rights in the Pennsylvania Legislature, the organization also connected April with her state representative and helped her obtain a special exception due to her life-threatening circumstance.
- Thanks to the efforts of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, the Idaho Governor signed an executive order to make many of his temporary coronavirus deregulations permanent, including restrictions on telehealth.
- The Maine Governor took emergency action to loosen occupational licensing and telehealth rules—in line with recommendations from the Maine Policy Institute.
- The Mississippi Center for Public Policy worked on executive orders that expanded access to telemedicine and allowed medical professionals licensed in other states to work in Mississippi.
- The Massachusetts Governor issued two executive orders removing barriers to telehealth during the height of the pandemic, and pending legislation promises to make telehealth permanent—a change that the Pioneer Institute has pursued through research and media appearances for years.
- The James Madison Institute helped Florida enact permanent healthcare measures such as scope-of-practice expansion, ambulatory surgical center expansion, certificate-of-need repeal, and pharmacy “Test and Treat,” which allows pharmacists to test for common illnesses like strep throat and the flu.
2. Americans’ individual rights are protected during the coronavirus
Many state leaders extended unilateral control over their state’s response to the pandemic, violating the important separation of powers provision that prevents one branch from yielding too much authority. By excluding the Legislature, the American people were left without a voice in these decisions that upended their lives, and in some cases, violated their individual rights.
Thankfully, state think tanks across the country have been working to give Americans a voice and restore checks and balances in their state.
- After the Alabama Policy Institute called for the reform of emergency powers, the Alabama Legislature introduced a bill that reduces the number of days the governor can call an emergency from 60 days to 14, after which the Legislature would have to approve of an extension.
- A bill that would have given the Hawaii State Director of Health broad coronavirus screening powers died at the State Capitol, thanks to the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii. Grassroot encouraged lawmakers to defer this measure, arguing Hawaii residents need more time to evaluate the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and the state response.
- The Kansas Justice Institute worked with policymakers to revise their emergency management practices, imposing a legislative check on executive power.
- After officials in Linn County, Kansas, issued an order requiring businesses to keep a record of who visits their establishment and when, the Kansas Justice Institute filed a lawsuit on behalf of two residents. County officials quickly removed the requirement to record and disclose customer information. Thanks to KJI, residents were no longer subject to warrantless searches and government overreach.
- The Mackinac Center sued the Michigan governor and won— twice—once on behalf of building contractors and also for medical centers that the governor had shut down. The Michigan Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Mackinac’s favor saying the governor must consult the Legislature to issue policies related to the coronavirus pandemic. The Wall Street Journal editorialized: “Michigan’s one-woman rule is no more.”
- Greenville, Mississippi, tried to ban drive-in church services, and Jackson, Mississippi, tried to restrict the right to openly carry a firearm—because of the pandemic. Both mayors let their orders expire immediately after the Mississippi Center for Public Policy filed litigation.
- The Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down the Wisconsin Governor’s extension of the “Safer at Home” order. The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty filed an amicus brief in support of the Wisconsin Legislature’s original action challenging the extension of the order. The Wisconsin Supreme Court also ruled that three of the governor’s budget vetoes were unconstitutional after WILL challenged them in court, upholding the separation of powers.
3. Small businesses could cope with burdensome shutdown policies
In response to the pandemic, governors across the country implemented emergency orders that shut down businesses and forced people to remain in their homes. What started as “two weeks to slow the spread” turned into months of continued lockdowns. These measures have crippled the economy and left many without a way to provide for themselves and their families.
Over these nine months, state think tanks have offered reforms and recommendations to ease the burden on businesses.
- The Buckeye Institute helped Ohio pass a law that allows restaurants to sell alcohol as a carry-out item (a major revenue source for restaurants).
- The Beacon Center of Tennessee encouraged the governor to classify businesses as “safe v. unsafe” rather than “essential v. nonessential,” as long as they can open according to Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines. Beacon also helped pass much-needed liability protections for businesses.
- The Illinois Policy Institute fought back against an attempt by the Illinois Governor to make it a Class A misdemeanor for violating his business closure order. IPI mobilized over 20,000 Illinoisans to call their representatives and speak out against the order.
- The Commonwealth Foundation in Pennsylvania fought back against the shutdown of businesses and enabled hundreds of workers to return safely to their jobs.
- The Massachusetts Governor adopted several of the Pioneer Institute’s recommendations to exempt certain businesses and organizations from the state’s coronavirus shutdown order.
- Thanks to the Platte Institute, Nebraska repealed regulations to allow businesses to stay afloat during the pandemic, including allowing distillers to make hand sanitizer.
- To help families get back to work, the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs launched a Reopen Oklahoma campaign. OCPA created a “You Are Essential” website to help small businesses navigate the shutdown orders and show Oklahomans that any small business can be “essential” to the families that depend on it to make ends meet. OCPA’s efforts led to the governor lifting all shelter-in-place orders.
- The Washington Policy Center encouraged the state to restart residential construction, which was shut down at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. After they launched their campaign, the governor relaxed restrictions.
- The Yankee Institute helped Connecticut implement a hold-harmless unemployment tax provision for small businesses forced to lay off employees due to the coronavirus. Normally, when businesses let go of employees, they have to pay more in state unemployment taxes. But during this crisis, businesses were forced to close and lay-off employees. This temporary hold on this tax increase helped ease the financial burden on business owners and help prevent businesses from closing permanently.
4. Americans had a voice during the fallout of economic lockdowns
Public health concerns have dominated many headlines, but economic health has been threatened, too. Many livelihoods have been jeopardized as a result of economic shutdowns, and as lockdowns have persisted, millions of Americans have felt their peace of mind and financial security threatened by the uncertainty of when business—and even regular income—can resume.
State think tanks offered policy reforms to ease the economic burden on Americans, and several think tanks shared stories of Americans struggling to keep jobs, businesses, and livelihoods afloat in the wake of the pandemic’s economic impact.
- Civitas Institute highlighted how North Carolina’s mandated lockdown is devastating the state’s tourism industry. Civitas featured stories of hotel owners, homeowners who rely on vacation rental income, and restaurants fighting to keep the lights on.
- The Idaho Freedom Foundation launched the “Stay-At-Home” stories project that features Idaho workers and business owners whose livelihoods have been threatened by the shutdown.
- Illinois Policy Institute shared the stories of several business owners and their struggle with the economic shutdown. As IPI highlighted these stories, featured business owners saw a flow of orders from Illinoisans eager to keep these local businesses alive.
- The John Locke Foundation highlighted how North Carolina’s lockdown forced the closure of a local pub.
- Mississippi Center for Public Policy told the stories of salon, gym, and restaurant owners struggling from the state’s shutdown orders.
- The Pelican Institute traveled across Louisiana, collecting stories of Louisianans impacted by the economic shutdown. Pelican shared these stories in the video series, “Faces of the Shutdown.”
5. Struggling American families received much-needed tax relief
- The Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions built and promoted a petition to recall a property tax increase in the middle of the coronavirus.
- The Illinois Policy Institute saved millions of Illinois families from the devastating “fair tax”—which would have costed the typical Illinois family $244 more in state and local taxes.
- The Idaho Freedom Foundation worked with the Illinois Governor to pass a $200 million property tax cut as part of Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act spending.
- Thanks to the Independence Institute, Coloradans are getting an income tax cut. Independence Institute’s income tax cut, Proposition 116, passed on Election Day. The measure will reduce the tax rate from 4.63% to 4.55%.
- Thanks to the efforts of the Kansas Policy Institute, the Kansas Legislature passed property tax reform that requires local elected officials to notify citizens in writing if they wish to collect more property tax revenue than the year before.
- The Maryland Public Policy Institute created the conditions for the Maryland Governor to veto a $32 billion education funding proposal known as the Kirwan plan. The Institute noted the majority of Marylanders wanted the state to redirect existing funds to pay for education instead of increasing the state budget.
- Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity launched a counter-campaign to the government-union led effort to raise taxes in the state. The campaign, #RaiseSailsNotTaxes, reminds Rhode Island lawmakers that raising taxes during an economic crisis will lead to even more job losses, more business closings, more out-migration, more poverty, and a slower, longer economic recovery.
6. American children had education options and could continue learning during the pandemic
- Mississippi legislators voted to renew the state’s Education Scholarship Account (ESA) program until 2024 thanks to the efforts of Empower Mississippi. ESAs are state-supervised spending accounts that can be used to pay for education.
- The Commonwealth Foundation prevented lawmakers from cutting a major school choice tax credit program from the Pennsylvania budget due to coronavirus budget concerns.
- Louisiana passed a law that removes major hurdles to providing broadband access to people and businesses who sorely need it across the state. The Pelican Institute celebrated the new law, noting it’s great to see the passage of solutions-focused legislation like this.
- Texas Public Policy Foundation’s recommendations for virtual school reforms received waiver action from the Texas Commissioner for the 2020 school year. These waivers expand the number of virtual courses students can take, provide flexibility for teacher professional development, and streamline the virtual course approval process.
- Florida passed an expansion of the Family Empowerment Scholarship Program—a school choice program—to increase enrollment from 18,000 children to 46,000 children. The James Madison Institute promoted the legislation.
7. Americans could get a job and provide for their families
An occupational license is a permission slip from the government to work, and to get these licenses, states require people to complete a certain amount of training, take an exam, and pay a fee to practice their profession.
The costs, both in time and money, are steep hurdles for Americans, especially low-income individuals who often work in fields that require these licenses. State think tanks across the country have been encouraging policymakers to lift these burdensome restrictions so residents can more easily get a job and provide for their families.
- The Goldwater Institute has long championed the right to earn a living and not have to go through onerous licensing requirements twice. In 2020, seven state legislatures—in Arizona, Iowa, Idaho, Missouri, Montana, Pennsylvania, and Utah—passed bills based on Goldwater’s universal recognition for occupational licensure law, which makes it easier for skilled professionals to obtain an occupational license when they relocate to another state.
- Thanks to the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, military families moving to Mississippi will no longer have to jump through government hoops to obtain an occupational license.
- Iowa passed universal recognition of occupational licenses from other states, similar to reforms passed in Nebraska in 2018, thanks to the multistate efforts of the Platte Institute. For several years, the Tax Education Foundation of Iowa has been encouraging policymakers to take this step, explaining how it would expand economic opportunity for workers and make Iowa a place where more people want to live and do business.
- In July, Missouri expanded universal licensing reciprocity. The Show-Me Institute has been fighting for this reform for years, and their work was instrumental in putting this idea front and center for Missouri lawmakers. The impact of this law will reverberate across Missouri, benefiting thousands of licensed professionals and the people who need their services.
- Thanks to the efforts of The James Madison Institute, Florida passed the Occupational Freedom and Opportunity Act, reducing and eliminating many of the licensing requirements that were especially onerous for barbers, cosmetologists, hair braiders, interior designers, geologists, and talent agents.
8. State budgets are more prepared for the future
- The Buckeye Institute encouraged policymakers to enact a hiring freeze on government workers.
- The Empire Center recommended that New York freeze government employee wages in an effort to prevent massive layoffs. The New York Governor took their advice, using his emergency powers to defer a two percent pay hike that had been slated to occur for most unionized state government workers.
- Louisiana passed a law that reforms the state budget to rein in reckless spending. The Pelican Institute called for fiscal reforms like these and noted the reform is a major win to “Get Louisiana Working.”
- The Mackinac Center helped pass reforms to end Michigan’s “Pure Michigan” tourism slush fund through their investigative reporting and data analysis showing that the purported return on investment was not based on truth. The move saved taxpayers $37.5 million.
- The New Mexico Legislature, with the input from the Rio Grande Foundation passed reforms to the State’s Public Employees Retirement System of New Mexico (PERA), which faced $6.7 billion in unfunded liabilities. The reforms are a big step toward making New Mexico’s pension system solvent.
9. Americans have the freedom to choose union membership
- Thanks to the Beacon Center of Tennessee, the Tennessee House of Representatives took a major step toward putting right-to-work in the state’s constitution when it voted by a supermajority to proceed with the amendment process.
- The West Virginia Supreme Court ruled that the state’s right-to-work law is legal, putting a four-year legal fight to rest. The court upheld the Workplace Freedom Act, passed in 2016, as constitutional. The Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy has been working on the Right-to-Work issue since the organization’s inception in 2015.
- In July, the Michigan Civil Service Commission adopted a rule requiring affirmative consent in Michigan, making this the first purple state to protect the Janus rights of workers in this way. The Mackinac Center requested this change and testified in support of it.
10. State governments are transparent and held accountable
- The Empire Center for Public Policy filed a lawsuit against the New York Governor’s administration after the Department of Health failed to release records detailing how many nursinghome residents perished from the coronavirus.
- The Garden State Initiative in New Jersey challenged the state’s pursuit of toll and tax increases while closing public hearings due to the coronavirus. After resisting accountability, the New Jersey Governor agreed to “streaming hearings” so the public could comment on proposed changes.
- Kansas Policy Institute discovered the Kansas Department of Health and Environment doctored a coronavirus case chart to justify mask mandates. Without KPI, this manipulation would have gone unchecked.
- Nevada Policy Research Institute’s transparency projects TransparentNevada.com and TransparentCalifornia.com—are proving to be indispensable tools for keeping citizens aware of how government spends their money. Transparent Nevada has reached over 400,000 Nevadans, or about one in four registered voters in the state. Transparent California reached an amazing quarter-billion all-time pageviews.
- The Show-Me Institute worked to increase transparency in how municipalities spend taxpayer dollars. As a result, Missouri passed legislation that creates a government expenditure database, showing citizens what they pay for line-by-line.
- The Washington Policy Center examined Washington state’s coronavirus testing rates and the governor’s widely touted “COVID-19 Risk Assessment dials,” which the governor used to make decisions about reopening the state economy. Through its research, WPC found the governor’s risk assessment dials were unscientific, sometimes not tied to any data and other times connected to incorrect data. Thanks to WPC’s efforts, the governor abandoned his risk assessment dials and opted for new metrics.