These Think Tanks Think Small
Local policy groups are using fresh approaches to solve problems for states, counties, and towns
THE Heartland Institute of Illinois, the Independence Institute of Colorado, the Mackinac Center of Michigan, the South Carolina Policy Council - these organizations were largely unknown, even to politically aware observers, in March 1991. That's when representatives of 15 "outside-the-beltway think tanks" met in Indianapolis to create an alliance of regional policy groups dedicated to promoting free-market approaches to government at the state and local level.
Today the State Policy Network has 48 affiliates. The recent November victory of Republican governors, many of whom seek advice from these groups, has brought a few of them national attention. The Mackinac Center, for example, is often mentioned in connection with efforts by Gov. John Engler to improve Michigan's public education system.
Just as Congress is beginning to pass more responsibility for providing social services down to states, counties, and towns this growing network of regional think tanks has developed techniques for reforming government that are proving effective and increasingly enjoying bipartisan support. "As you get down to lower levels of government, things become less a question of who's liberal or who's conservative ... and more about the challenge of using limited resources most effectively," says Byron Lamm, executive director of the State Policy Network in Fort Wayne, Ind. "State-based think tanks have come up with some powerful approaches for improving local government because a lot of it turns out to be common sense, not ideology or turning lead into gold."
'WHAT you have to remember when you get down to lower levels of government, such as school boards or even some state legislatures," says Hal Eberle, a board member of the South Carolina Policy Council, "is that the positions are filled by part-timers, mostly business people and professionals. They're used to rubber stamping what the bureaucracy wants or the way things have always been done. But if you just show them how something has been done better somewhere else, you really can change their minds."
Larry Reed, president of the Mackinac Center, agrees: "What we learned in Michigan is that the challenge isn't persuading officials to try new ideas as much as giving them the data they need to make a case to their colleagues and constituents. We've found that a lot of city and county leaders ... just don't feel comfortable advocating a change in their own communities without a successful instance they can point to somewhere else."
Mackinac publishes a 16-page quarterly called "The Michigan Privatization Report," which gives specific examples of savings achieved by a variety of public agencies and government departments around the state and country. Distributed to nearly 14,000 Michigan legislators, school-board members, mayors, city council members, and county commissioners, its impact has been enormous. "Judging just by the clippings we see from different newspapers around the state," Mr. Reed says, "It appears to be giving officials at all levels the 'cover' they need to try out what they've really been wanting to do."
In Dayton, Ohio, the year-and-a-half-old Buckeye Center recently created a stir when it published a simple 28-page report comparing the state's 19 largest cities using three categories: crime statistics, local income and property tax rates, and relative government overhead. "It's really proved helpful to officials to have a study like this," says co-author Sam Staley, "because it was produced by economic experts who receive no government funding and who have no vested interest in the system." In Cincinnati, Councilman Phil Heimlich has cited his city's low ranking in all three of the study's categories to make a strong case for reducing local property taxes. The Buckeye Center has also produced a related report questioning the economic benefits of large sports arenas that has led both state and local officials to seriously reexamine proposals for the public funding of stadium subsidies.
A second technique that has proved effective involves finding ways to help ordinary citizens turn their pet inspirations into workable legislation. In 1991, the Pioneer Institute of Boston decided to run a competition to see who could come up with the best ideas for privatizing or restructuring local government. Of the 175 proposals received that year, 15 were selected by a five-judge panel to be developed into more detailed business plans. These included a proposal to privatize the pharmacies at state-run institutions, such as mental hospitals and prisons, which has since been adopted by the legislature.
A second contest in 1992 had "the environment" as its theme and generated, among others, a proposal from an MIT professor who felt that a scheduled $4.5 billion waste-water treatment plant for Boston Harbor could be redesigned to accomplish the same job for far less money. The Massachusetts Water Resources Authority ultimately agreed, recently incorporating changes that will slash construction costs by 25 percent. The first two competitions saved so much taxpayer money, says James Peyser, executive director of the Pioneer Institute, that they have now become an annual event in Massachusetts.
For three years the San Francisco-based Pacific Research Institute has run a competition that taps the ideas of state workers. Several innovations generated by California public employees, including a proposal to save $80 million annually by contracting out state-funded home health care services, have made their way into Gov. Pete Wilson's recent budgets.
In 1994, the Cascade Policy Institute in neighboring Oregon had its own Better Government Competition. With the enthusiastic support of local newspapers and broadcast outlets, anyone with a good idea for improving state or local services was encouraged to submit a five-page summary. Of the 10 suggestions that were selected to be developed into more detailed business plans, eight have been introduced before the Oregon legislature, including a popular proposal to streamline the adoption of children in foster care.
A third strategy that regional think tanks find successful is providing an intellectual home to academics from state universities that fear their desire to do applied research on government reform will not be professionally rewarded - or worse, that it will be unfairly equated by colleagues with right-wing extremism. "When we set out a year ago to recruit for our Board of Academic Advisors," explains Buckeye Center president Andrew Little, "most people thought we wouldn't find any professors who would either understand what we were trying to do or be willing to take the risk." Today, he says, Buckeye's research program draws heavily on the talents of 28 scholars, representing 16 Ohio campuses.
Almost all state think tanks have developed "advisory councils" or "senior fellow" programs. In Connecticut, the Glastonbury-based Yankee Institute recently sponsored an analysis of the state's tenure laws, pointing the way toward easier removal of incompetent public school teachers. Similarly, two scholars at the Texas Public Policy Foundation in San Antonio, University of Texas economics professor John Merrifield and his colleague Doug Flanagan, have developed a plan to reconcile wildlife protection with real estate development by selling "habitat rights," similar to the "pollution rights" currently traded among industrial companies.
One of the country's first regional think tanks, the James Madison Institute in Tallahassee, Fla., is actually in a joint project with the Collins Center at Florida State University to undertake a comprehensive, long-term review of the state's entire legislative process. The goal is to determine how well the political process is really serving Florida's residents.