By Kathleen O’Hearn

Entering 2017, the network had an incredible array of opportunities to advance freedom in the states that had not existed since the 1920s. Americans were demanding change, and they felt the American dream was slipping further out of reach every day. So, did the state think tank network seize these opportunities?

Absolutely.

While Washington, DC, dominated the headlines, the real success stories occurred in the states, where policy solutions empowered workers, cut red tape, reduced government union power, and protected free speech for all Americans.

State Solutions Helping the Forgotten American Worker

If there is any lesson to be learned from the last election, it is that hardworking Americans are fed up with the status quo in Washington and want policymakers who will fight for a government that works for people like them and not just special interest groups. Now, more than ever, Americans see the importance of smaller, more limited government. They want state and local policies that reduce job-killing regulations and support personal freedom, innovation, and opportunity. States delivered on that promise in 2017.

Reducing Regulations that Kill Jobs

Nineteen states introduced bills to enact occupational licensing reform this year, empowering the quarter of the American workforce (combined across all states) whose jobs require licensing. Nebraska, New Jersey, Connecticut, Tennessee, and Utah repealed licenses to eleven professions across the five states. The South Carolina legislature had the good sense to vote down a bill to license a new profession: electrology.

One of the most notable gains came from Arizona, where the passage of the first full Right to Earn a Living Act enabled workers to take agencies and cities to court over unnecessary, burdensome regulations, including occupational licensing restrictions. Jon Riches of the Goldwater Institute said, “A hallmark of American freedom is the right to pursue one’s chosen profession and provide for oneself and one’s family. This is particularly true today—where new technologies make entrepreneurship easier than ever. The Right to Earn a Living Act restores the proper balance between free enterprise and legitimate government regulation, ensuring that economic opportunity for all is not merely a promise, but a reality.”

A wave of occupational licensing relief swept across the states, helping more people get back to work. Beacon Center of Tennessee helped Martha Rowe save her business by seeking fair and realistic licensing reforms.

Returning Power to Workers through Labor Reform

State think tanks continue to advance the cause of hard working Americans who do not feel they should be compelled to belong to a union—especially one that does not represent their interests—in order to earn a living. States have made tremendous progress in returning power and choice to the workers instead of expanding it for politically active union leaders.

Two states, Kentucky and Missouri, passed right-to-work legislation early this year, growing the ranks of right-to-work states from 26 to 28. The laws are only the beginning of the fight for labor reform, as Patrick Ishmael of the Show-Me Institute in Missouri, the 28th right-to-work state, reminds us: “Right-to-work is a victory that empowers workers, but legislators should not rest on their laurels while the list of other opportunities in labor reform remains long.”

Right-to-work has not been the only path to labor reform gaining momentum in the states. Recertification—also known as the Worker Voter Rights Act—is one little-known policy from Wisconsin’s famous Act 10 that is catching fire across the states. Recertification allows union members the right to vote every one to three years on whether they want to maintain or replace their current union. In Wisconsin, this policy has played a role in the 83 percent decrease in union spending. During the last two years, eight states have introduced recertification. This policy will have significant impact across the country should states continue to put power back in the hands of workers through bold state-level policy change.

Addressing State Pension Crises

In addition to having more choice on union membership and representation, union members are also receiving greater retirement security through pension reform. Michigan and Pennsylvania made historic strides in pension reform this year by moving new public employees to defined contribution retirement plans. As a result, these states can curb the unsustainable growth in unfunded liabilities, which total $700 billion in Pennsylvania and $29 billion in Michigan.

The Commonwealth Foundation, Pennsylvania’s free-market think tank, championed this reform for more than a decade.

“Commonwealth Foundation helped change the political culture,” said Gina Diorio, director of media relations at the Commonwealth Foundation. “In 2016, a poll showed most Pennsylvania voters wanted reform, and during the last several elections, Pennsylvanians increasingly supported lawmakers who would make reform a priority—and now, a reality. If this kind of change can happen against all odds in a state of Pennsylvania’s size and influence, it can happen anywhere.”

The Mackinac Center for Public Policy took up a similar fight in Michigan in 2011 when they saw how unfunded liabilities from teachers’ pensions would strain schools’ budgets.

“[Michigan’s] reform isn’t perfect, but it meets the criteria we’d propose for good policy,” said Joe Lehman, president of the Mackinac Center. “It doesn’t make any cuts for current teachers or retirees, it gives the next generation of educators better choices, and it limits the addition of new unfunded liabilities.”

Thanks to the work of the Commonwealth Foundation and the Mackinac Center, Pennsylvania and Michigan have proven for other states that meaningful pension reform is possible.

Protecting Free Speech for all Americans

With little power left at the federal level, opponents of free speech (on the Left and the Right) turned to the states to stop their opponents. The growing influence of free-market organizations and ideas has been a central target.  Their strategy? Drive pro-freedom speech out of the public square by pushing legislation that would require nonprofits and charity organizations to report donor names and addresses on a public government list. In 2017, sixteen states introduced these donor disclosure laws.

SPN President Tracie Sharp said, “Once this information is reported to the government, it will be posted online on a public website that anyone can look up. That means your boss, your neighbors, your family—and even people who disagree with the causes you support—will know your home address and how much money you donate to the causes you support. These proposals are reckless, and if they are adopted, it’s just a matter of time before someone gets hurt.”

None of the 16 proposals passed—a sweeping victory for free speech and for Americans who will be able to support causes they believe in without fear of harassment. However, we know that defense is not enough. In 2018, it will be time to go on the offensive and codify into law protections on free speech that are under attack in our states.

In 2017, sixteen states introduced donor disclosure laws, but none of them passed. 

Expanding Education Options

This past spring, Arizona made history by enacting the nation’s first enforceable universal private school choice program: Empowerment Scholarship Accounts. A solution first crafted by the Goldwater Institute, these accounts are similar to flexible spending accounts for healthcare, except that instead of depositing money into the account from a paycheck, the state government deposits a child’s share of school funding. If a parent or student decides their assigned public school is not meeting their needs, they can leave the school and instead receive money from the state through an account. These funds pay for alternative education options and expenses.

Arizona’s program is currently available to students with special needs, students in failing schools, students from low-income families, students adopted from state foster care, students on Native American reservations, and students with active-duty military parents. The new law phases in an expansion that, over time, will include all Arizona school children.

This program is already changing students’ lives—students like Jordan Visser, whose cerebral palsy made being in a traditional classroom setting difficult, and Elias Hines, who wasn’t being challenged in his neighborhood school. Aiden and Erin Yellowhair are using accounts to leave a gang-infested, failing public school for a college prep school on the Navajo Reservation.

Keeping Public Lands in the Hands of Local People

In December 2016, President Obama designated a third of Utah’s San Juan County (1.35 million acres) as the Bears Ears National Monument—a decision that drew support from environmental groups, corporations, and even celebrities. These special interests overlooked the fact that Bears Ears is home to 15,000 people whose history, culture, and future are deeply rooted in this land.

The Sutherland Institute gave a voice to these native people through a campaign that propelled this local grassroots issue into the national spotlight. Their work prompted Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke to visit San Juan County and see the natives’ reality for himself.

“He rode horses with third-generation rancher Zeb Dalton and learned about grazing in the Manti-La Sal National Forest. He listened to Navajo medicine woman Grandma Betty Jones tell stories about gathering traditional herbs and medicines along the Bears Ears Buttes. He heard from farmers like Elmer Hurst about the difficulties of raising crops in the arid Southwest. While their use of the land differs, they all stood in solidarity to ask Secretary Zinke to rescind the Bears Ears National Monument,” said Matt Anderson of the Sutherland Institute.

And their voices were heard. In June 2017, Secretary Zinke recommended that President Trump revise the monument’s boundaries. Now the people of San Juan County are awaiting the President’s decision, and the Sutherland Institute is pursuing reforms to the Antiquities Act. The reforms would mean that presidents no longer have unfettered authority to designate public lands without incorporation of local opinions and knowledge.

Photo Credit: Sutherland Institute

What’s ahead in 2018?

Sir Winston Churchill said it best: “Continuous effort—not strength or intelligence—is the key to unlocking our potential.”

The state think tank network was created for such a time as this. Over the last 25 years, we have seen firsthand how the states can be fertile ground for solutions that have national impact. While 2017 showed tremendous gains for freedom, 2018 will present a new slate of opportunities. Opportunities include, but are not limited to, going on the offensive to protect American’s right to free speech and privacy and continuing to roll back regulations so that more Americans can go back to work.  There is a chance to fundamentally re-imagine Medicaid with new flexibility from DC and to free workers from government unions. Finally, there is the possibility to put in place structural reforms that will make it harder to expand government should the tides turn.

It’s the network’s moment to accelerate more policy solutions that will strengthen personal freedom, innovation, opportunity, and a more peaceful society in which all Americans can flourish.

Kathleen O’Hearn is the Senior Director of Policy Advancement at State Policy Network.