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Thursday, July 22, 2010 07:38 am

Conservative think tank to Illinois: TURN RIGHT

The growing influence of the Illinois Policy Institute


John Tillman joined the Illinois Policy Institute in 2007 and soon became president and CEO of the organization. The Institute’s founder credits him with the group’s increased visibility in recent years.

When barbers employed by the state earn an average annual wage of nearly $66,000, compared to the average Illinois private sector barber’s $27,600, something is amiss, says the increasingly visible Illinois Policy Institute, which bills itself as a nonpartisan research organization attempting to bring specific ideological solutions to public policy.

The example, meant to show a disparity between public employees and their private sector equivalents, is one of 17 job titles the Institute used in its “Mind the Gap” report issued early last month. The report is prime material for stirring taxpayer anger, provides fuel for an anti-tax debate and exemplifies part of the Institute’s ideological bent – the state spends too much money, taxpayers are overburdened and government interference pushes out businesses, jobs and prosperity. Formed in 2002, the Institute backs “free-market” or “free enterprise” principles, which argue that the economic laws of supply and demand govern more effectively than any coercive bureaucratic entity.

With eye-popping reports like “Mind the Gap,” a $2.2 million budget and scores of angry taxpayers looking for something to stand behind, the relatively young Institute, with its established perspective, has the means to become a major voice in Illinois public policy.  Whether that voice can be both compelling and worthwhile – truly nonpartisan and backed by comprehensive data – is a question that is now, and will likely remain, on the minds of those in Illinois’ political arena.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, for example, says the Institute is anything but nonpartisan and its work anything but actual research. Responding to the “Mind the Gap” salary report, AFSCME spokesman Anders Lindall, says the Institute “cherry picks” its information, turning bits of data into “propaganda to serve that far right, extreme ideology. … What they like to call research is dictated by their preferred political outcome.”

AFSCME, a government employees’ union, is a natural adversary of the limited government-minded Institute, but Lindall also points to a report by the Center for Local and State Government Excellence released just weeks before the Institute’s “Mind the Gap.” It concluded that Illinois, in general, pays public employees about 13 percent less than their private sector counterparts – after accounting for age, experience and education.

The Institute’s CEO and president, John Tillman, says the opposing report is flawed and insists that his organization does not “cherry pick.” But he adds, “Our mission is to advance free-market principles and policies so we look for data that supports that.”

Getting heard
The ideas the Institute espouses are nothing new, Tillman says, but until recently no one in Illinois had been selling them successfully. “I believed no one was making the case for free-market vigorously,” Tillman says of his decision to get involved with public policy about six years ago. Previously the owner of several small businesses, the 51-year old grew up in rural Michigan before coming to northern Illinois 25 years ago. Tillman now resides in a small village in northern Cook County. The Illinois Policy Institute is the third free-market organization that Tillman has led since 2004. He joined the Institute in 2007. “I just wanted to add our voice … in an impactful way. I believed the public was generally with us.”

Working to strike the public’s nerve, the Institute is arguing for free-market in new ways and getting plenty of attention. Since 2007 the number of mentions or features the Institute has garnered in print and broadcast media has jumped from about 50 to more than 620 in 2009. The Institute’s founder, Springfield native Greg Blankenship, who left the group in 2009, credits Tillman with the Institute’s increased visibility.

Tillman says the Institute is “riding a wave that is a cultural phenomenon,” calling some of the Institute’s success a product of widespread disaffection with both political parties that stems from war fatigue and the national economic crisis that has compounded Illinois’ fiscal instability. “Prosperity comes primarily from the private sector,” Tillman says, pointing to jobs and charities funded by businesses and individuals as the way to solve social problems. “Right now, the private sector is not successful and people are worried about that.”

Besides continuing to produce regular reports, the Institute is planning a bus tour of rallies and speeches in Illinois cities and villages, where Tillman hopes to mobilize everyday people to tell their lawmakers that free-market is the way to go. To highlight its philosophies, the Institute posts blogs on its website using clips from the movie Zoolander and a photograph of what looks like a double KFC Double Down sandwich to discuss what it considers the senselessness of targeted taxation. It also references basketball player LeBron James’ decision against signing with Chicago to emphasize Illinois’ tax rates, which the Institute considers high.

Appearing at Tea Party gatherings this spring, Tillman rallied the crowd with talk of a kind of revolution – to take back Illinois government, bring in a new slate of leaders and bring prosperity back to the state.

Taking a more traditional approach, the Institute hosts regular luncheons and forums to which it invites the public to hear ideas and experiences of statewide and nationally known lawmakers, authors and activists who can speak to the organization’s agenda.

Chicago Democratic Sen. James Meeks partnered with the Illinois Policy Institute this past spring in a push to bring school vouchers to Illinois’ education system. Meeks spoke at one of the Institute’s luncheons highlighting the voucher idea.

Affecting education
One of those luncheons held this spring featured a man who, in light of his perception of the Institute as a Republican-leaning organization, makes for an unusual partner in policy.

Chicago Democratic Sen. James Meeks, the leader of the state’s largest black church, and the Illinois Policy Institute were working together to bring school vouchers to Illinois. The measure the coalition was pushing would have allowed children at the lowest performing elementary schools to transfer to private schools. The money the state pays for the students’ education would follow the student.

­­“Families who receive school vouchers do better than would otherwise be the case and public schools get better through increased competition,” says Springfield native Collin Hitt, the Institute’s director of education policy. “We’ve tried some things in Illinois and they haven’t worked, but there’s a lot of stuff we haven’t tried and school vouchers is one of those things.”

Meeks says the Institute’s research on the legality of vouchers, in terms of separation of church and state, was a major force behind moving the legislation through the Illinois Senate, he says, adding that he was confident enough in the quality of Hitt’s research that he relied on him for committee testimony.

The measure failed in the House, where Meeks says lobbying from teachers’ unions likely played a role. The Illinois Education Association cites the spending of public funds on private schools as inherently wrong. The IEA’s Charles McBarron says that failing schools perform poorly because they are underfunded and that diverting dollars away from those schools to private schools would only perpetuate the problem. “Weakening them so they can’t deliver quality education is not how this state is going to move forward,” McBarron says.

While Meeks says his partnership with the Institute in support of vouchers was a good fit and he’s interested in working with the Institute on other issues, he adds that the Institute wasn’t advocating for his constituents. It was advocating for vouchers and used Meeks’ issue as an opportunity to promote such a system, he says. “It’s almost like we came over to them. … They didn’t pick the issue that affected the African-American community and come over to it. We came over to them.”

Meeks says the Institute, through the voucher issue, has made a good start at showing it’s nonpartisan but still has work to do before it can “deem itself as an honest broker that crosses the aisle.”

The Institute also supports charter schools, which receive public money and are connected to a local school district but operate under many of their own rules, and lauded Gov. Pat Quinn’s signing of legislation last year that raised the state’s cap on the number of charter schools from 60 to 120, a measure that some lawmakers hoped would give Illinois a leg up in competition for federal education funding.

The Institute continues to pursue charter school initiatives and last year served on a charter school task force, co-chaired by Chicago Democratic Sen. Heather Steans, who says the institute was an asset to discussion. “You can be an obstructionist or you can help move people toward a consensus,” she says, pointing to the Institute, in that instance, as the latter.

Kristina Rasmussen, executive vice president of the Illinois Policy Institute.

Budget talk
Steans’ remarks are less complimentary, however, when it comes to another one of the Institute’s major issues – the state budget.
During the 2010 spring legislative session, when the state expected a $13 billion budget gap, the Illinois Policy Institute issued “2011 Budget Solutions,” the organization’s first attempt at offering an alternative budget. It eliminated programs such as meal delivery to seniors and breast and prostate cancer screenings as well as entire agencies, including the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency and the Illinois Arts Council. It also zeroed out the state’s deficit.

House Republican Leader Tom Cross, responding to the fact that no one bothered to turn the plan into legislation, says he sees the Institute as an idea-generator expanding the General Assembly’s dialogue. “We don’t think outside the box, and they think outside the box. And that’s what’s good about them,” Cross says.

The point of the proposal wasn’t to get legislation drafted, Tillman says, but to show that options other than raising taxes are available, if lawmakers can find the political will. Tillman says the Institute will likely publish an alternative budget every year from here on out.
In response to suggestion that the Institute’s proposal was too extreme, Tillman says, “I think what is really too much and radical is the idea of borrowing to prosperity.”

Steans, who like most Republicans voted against pension borrowing this spring but voted in favor of a tax increase in 2009, questions the validity of the Institute’s budget proposal. “There’s definitely areas in state government where there’s waste,” Steans says, adding that cuts alone, as the Institute proposed, aren’t going to solve the budget crisis. “I don’t think that’s a helpful message to be sending. … It’s just looking and focusing on one part of the problem. When you do that, I don’t think you help your credibility. Things are very complex and you have to acknowledge the complexity of the situation.”

Aiming to encourage the state to cut sufficiently in the near future, the Institute this spring pushed the Sunshine Commission Act, which would require a review of state agencies’ relevancy, efficiency and effectiveness. Lawmakers would then be forced to issue one vote approving or rejecting all the recommendations made by a board of four outsiders and four lawmakers chosen by the four legislative leaders. The all or nothing approach is meant to ensure that lawmakers don’t pick and choose their favorite programs, leaving nothing left to cut, Tillman says.

Cross, one of the measure’s sponsors, credits the Institute with the idea, which was unanimously approved by both chambers of the General Assembly and now awaits the governor’s signature to become law.

Pension plans
The Institute took another stab at fixing Illinois’ dire budget outlook early this year in addressing the state’s pension obligations. The Institute dubbed its plan “The Pension Funding and Fairness Act.” It called for allowing the state to borrow money to pay for its pension obligations while also freezing overall spending for three years and limiting spending growth to only the rate of inflation and population growth for every year after that. The plan, written by two New Hampshire economists, also called for building a reserve fund for use in economic downturns.

The plan was publicly criticized by the Institute’s own founder, who sparred with Tillman in essays posted on Illinois Review, a conservative online political forum. Blankenship wrote that “in effect, the Institute is proposing to buy off the Illinois General Assembly.” Denouncing any borrowing proposal, Blankenship said the Institute’s plan put too much trust in lawmakers to restrict spending after they approved borrowing and would allow lawmakers to further delay a more fundamental fix to the pension system – “Illinois neither wants, needs nor can have fully funded pensions,” Blankenship wrote.

Tillman responded by citing Illinois’ constitutional requirement to fund the state’s pensions. “Our proposal reluctantly endorses borrowing. But it does so to address the real political and policy challenges facing Illinois in a proactive and practical way,” he wrote.

Resources and respect
At the time Blankenship wrote his criticism of the Institute’s pension plan, he had been removed from the organization for a little over a year. Both Tillman and Blankenship say the parting was amicable, but Blankenship notes that the hiring of Tillman – a prodigious fundraiser and keen marketer – as the head of the Institute did mark a transition for the group. He adds that he still “feels like a proud father of the organization.”

“I don’t think any founder of an organization is going to be perfectly happy with the direction that it goes, but I’m very proud of what they’re doing,” Blankenship says. “I know that when two elephants fight, there’s a lot of grass that gets destroyed. But the conservative movement values itself on being that idea generator. So there’s going to be disagreements and elephant fights and things like that. That’s healthy,” he says.

Blankenship applauds Tillman for his efforts in making the Institute more visible. Since Tillman signed on, the organization’s total appearances in print, radio and television have jumped from 51 in 2007 to more than 620 in 2009, according to the Institute. In only the first half of 2010, the Institute has been mentioned or featured more than 420 times.

What that’s worth is debatable.

“There’s that adage that a certain amount of success is just showing up, and they have the ability to do that more than someone fighting the good fight,” Lindall says. “It’s not any surprise that they are cited disproportionately.”

Indeed, the Institute has resources. Tillman has watched the Institute’s revenues jump from about $341,500 in 2007, the year he joined, to about $1.54 million in 2009. This year, the Institute’s budget sits at $2.2 million, Tillman says.

Tillman declined to reveal the Institute’s revenue sources. As a nonprofit, the organization is legally exempt from disclosing its donors, but Lindall says the Institute’s failure to do so is ironic, considering the group’s advocacy of government transparency. He says the Institute, as a tax-exempt nonprofit, derives benefit while individuals continue to pay taxes. “Yet we don’t know who funds them and that’s just one of many unanswered question.”
In its 2009 annual report, still in draft form, the Institute says that less than 1 percent of its revenue comes from corporate donors, with about 68 percent coming from individuals and about 28 percent from foundations. The rest is categorized as miscellaneous.

But resources only go so far.

“Part of it is being there and having a presence and being aware of you. Part of it is making the case,” says Kent Redfield, political science professor at the University of Illinois Springfield. “You can lose credibility very quickly if people believe you’re just cherry picking facts or putting positions out there without any kind of analytical capacity behind them.”

“To establish a reputation as somebody who does good research on policy areas … takes more time than having a set of principles and having an ideological position,” Redfield says. “That’s really the challenge for the Policy Institute.”

Contact Rachel Wells at rwells@illinoistimes.com.


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