The Money Behind Texas’ Most Influential Think Tank

by Published on
Texas Governor Rick Perry keynotes the Texas Public Policy Foundation's event at the Hilton Hotel in Austin, TX on January 10th, 2013
Gov. Rick Perry speaking at a TPPF summit.

What do you call a group of ideologues that collects millions from corporations and billionaires and then—through the alchemy of fuzzy math and Ayn Randian levels of free-market wishful thinking—churns out studies and policy papers used by politicians to justify miserly policies? Kick kids off health insurance? Here’s a white paper for that. Create confusion about climate science? Research paper! Propose tax cuts as a means to help West, Texas, recover from the fertilizer plant disaster? You bet. Derail Medicaid expansion that could insure millions and save an estimated 9,000 lives a year in Texas? Done.

I’d hardly call this organization a “think tank.” But that’s how the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) has been billing itself for many years, even as evidence grows that it’s less a think tank than in the tank.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with a conservative policy shop. After all, TPPF has a liberal counterpart, the Center for Public Policy Priorities, that frequently takes opposing stances on issues. The Center for Too Many P’s, as it’s sometimes jokingly called, certainly has an agenda—albeit one that strikes me as considerably more concerned with the well-being of working-class Texans and much less hardline in its policy prescriptions. If anything, CPPP is wonky and nuanced to a fault, perhaps reflecting its staff’s public-policy school pedigrees.

But TPPF is a different animal. The organization got its start in 1989, bankrolled by San Antonio mega-donor James Leininger, who sought intellectual support for his school-reform ideas, which included public school vouchers. TPPF floundered in relative obscurity for years, operating out of a warehouse in San Antonio with two employees. Relocating to Austin, nearer the political and lobby nerve center, helped boost the foundation. So did new leadership and friendly relationships with rising Republican stars like Rick Perry, Greg Abbott and Ted Cruz. But TPPF’s emergence as a place for mainstreaming fringe ideas couldn’t have happened without a funding formula. As the Observer reported last year, the group’s ever-growing budget—$5.5 million in 2011—is flush with donations from the likes of the Koch brothers, ExxonMobil, Altria (tobacco), Geo Group (private prisons) and dozens of other corporations, interest groups, right-wing foundations and wealthy businessmen with an agenda to promote.

Establishing a strict quid pro quo between the funding and the policy is difficult, of course, but TPPF’s policy papers and ideological positions often meld with the interests of its client-donors. That curious synchronicity suggests that this think tank may be less ideological than customer service-orienteda point underscored by reporting the Observer and The Guardian did in December. In an application to a large conservative foundation, TPPF bragged about its ability to provide an “intellectual foundation” for attacks on Medicaid. TPPF boasted of numerous meetings with Rick Perry’s staff and of convincing Sen. John Cornyn and a pair of Texas congressmen to “champion” legislation that would allow Texas to “block grant” (read: partially privatize) the state’s Medicaid program. Exaggeration is a feature of grant writing, and TPPF is no doubt inflating its influence a bit. But the documents still show TPPF’s reach and its main selling point: that it puts a veneer of respectability on otherwise fringe ideas. But any notion that TPPF operates with intellectual integrity is belied by the documents, too. In its grant request, TPPF seeks $40,000 from the funders to “prove” that its Medicaid proposal will work. Not to test it, or subject it to different assumptions, but rather to reach a predetermined conclusion. That’s the definition of reverse-engineering. And it is considered unethical in journalism, academia and intellectual pursuits.

TPPF is just one of scores of state-level think tanks that have cropped up in state capitals over the past decade. They receive only a tiny fraction of the media attention that marquee, Washington, D.C.-based organizations like the Heritage Foundation do. But in their way, the state groups are more influential. Very little happens in Congress these days anyway. The action on critical issues has shifted to statehouses where the TPPFs of the nation have outsized sway. But there’s nothing intellectual or thoughtful about what they do. It’s time to stop pretending otherwise.

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Forrest Wilder, a native of Wimberley, Texas, is associate editor of the Observer. Forrest specializes in environmental reporting and runs the “Forrest for the Trees” blog. Forrest has appeared on Democracy Now!, The Rachel Maddow Show and numerous NPR stations. His work has been mentioned by The New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, Time magazine and many other state and national publications. Other than filing voluminous open records requests, Forrest enjoys fishing, kayaking, gardening and beer-league softball. He holds a bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin.

  • 1bimbo

    very well-written opinion piece, a bit on the snarky side, but very honest

  • Bryan Blake

    Excellent article. It seems that the rich and ultra-rich are not just interested in having a piece of the pie. They want it all without leaving the rest of us even a crumb. The Founders never anticipated the Brothers Koch and their Nefarious Billionaires Club reeking havoc at the national level and in dozens of state capitals. As much as these conservatives (a.k.a. Texas Nationalists) like to claim we are a unique state it seems that Texas is swimming in the gutter along with the rest of the GOP controlled states.

    • 1bimbo

      why don’t you earn your ‘crumb’. the founders never anticipated such envious narcissists who walk around with their hands out demanding someone else owes them something. texas is a great state and, yes, a unique state which is thriving and full of opportunity. why else do you think everyone, and even you, are falling all over themselves to try to live here.

      • Bryan Blake

        I was born here. My family has lived here for generations. Rick Perry’s so-called economic miricle has produced mostly low end jobs at minimum wage or slightly above. This will be a great state once we move the Republicans to the curb and disinfect the Capitol Building.

      • Rosco O’Toole

        The founders anticipated that self interest and greed (see tea party) would destroy our Democracy: “The end of democracy and the defeat of the American Revolution will occur when government falls into the hands of lending institutions and moneyed incorporations.”

      • Pro-ChoiceTexan

        The fascist sociopath Republicans are ruining our state by destroying the environment and keeping wages low. There may be jobs here, but most of them cannot be called “good” jobs. They are most often minimum wage, low-paying jobs. The Republicans are also doing their best to take away our civil rights, including our right to vote and women’s right to make her own decisions about her own health care and reproduction. By and large the people in Texas are not “envious narcissists who walk around with their hands out.” Instead, they are decent people who want to earn a decent living.

        • 1bimbo

          this ‘woe is texas’ narrative is getting really old. but we do agree on one thing by and large the people of texas are not ‘envious narcissists who walk around with their hands out’ but there are sure a few choice whiners who spend a lot of their time squawking about the ones who do.

    • [email protected]

      Actually, it is not really the donations of billionaires usually, which has as much influence currently, as others. Take labor union leaders when at the fringe of traditional unionizing. Also, take those with forever permanent security clearances, whose deeds account for a lot more.

  • Gritsforbreakfast

    TPPF’s role in criminal justice reform has been quite positive and doesn’t particularly jibe with the characterization that their policy proposals only promote donor interests. FWIW, despite GEO Group donations they backed closure of two private prison units (albeit operated by a GEO competitor) in the last session and have generally, effectively promoted various de-incarceration reforms.

    • Forrest Wilder

      Good points, Scott.

      I would point out that some of TPPF’s top donors are large, middle-of-the-road foundations (Pew, e.g.) that have earmarked their money specifically for the criminal justice reform. http://www.texasobserver.org/revealed-the-corporations-and-billionaires-that-fund-the-texas-public-policy-foundation/

      I would also note that while TPPF has made common cause with many criminal justice reformers the official Right on Crime stance on private prisons is as follows: “For those instances when prisons are necessary, explore private prison options. A study by The Reason Foundation indicated that private prisons offer cost savings of 10 to 15 percent compared to state-operated facilities. By including an incentive in private corrections contracts for lowering recidivism and the flexibility to innovate, private facilities could potentially not just save money but also compete to develop the most cost-effective recidivism reduction programming.”

      http://www.rightoncrime.com/priority-issues/prisons/

      • Gritsforbreakfast

        Just saw your response, Forrest. Re: Pew donations, I think you’re confusing chickens and eggs. TPPF got in the crimjust game before Pew was funding them, not because they were pandering to donors. Rather, the donors followed after TPPF took leadership on the topic.

        On private prisons, while it’s true TPPF has spoken favorably of them in the past, they also backed shutting down two private units last session.

        I don’t always agree with them, but on the issues I work on I haven’t witnessed the same donor-driven agenda you’re describing on other topics.

        • Forrest Wilder

          For the record, I don’t believe, nor did I write, that TPPF is literally handed marching orders from the donors. I don’t think any organization is *entirely* driven by the interests of its funders. What I’m trying to establish is a tendency. I.e.: “That curious synchronicity suggests that this think tank may be less ideological than customer service-oriented.”

          If their criminal justice work is largely a departure from that, then I’d wager it’s more the exception than the rule.

    • Elizabeth RIebschlaeger

      I can’t help wonder if the push to empty out prisons might in part be due to the need for manpower in the oil and gas fracking industry now progressing full steam ahead in Texas and other states. Think of all the truck drivers and roughnecks that might appear to meet the needs of some of the very industries represented among the TPPF’s membership and contributing to its coffers. The estimated 1,000 plus trucks to get one well into production means a lot of hours behind the wheel. As TDPS works to bring the trucking industry into a safer operating mode, the hours drivers are allowed to drive are being cut back or in some cases, enforced as they hedge on their logbooks. More drivers are needed to maintain the demanding pace of trucks rushing back and forth to haul the water, sand and chemicals to the drill/frack site and the resulting hazardous oilfield waste to disposal wells. It is an endless process at this point. Emptying prisons would certainly help provide the man and woman power needed.

    • Rosco O’Toole

      For Profit Schools, Anti-Choice Legislation, Voter Suppression Laws, For
      Profit Prisons, Climate Denial, Evolution Denial. All TPPF causes, All
      Koch Bros. causes, All ALEC written laws, All Rick perry causes. Want
      to know where the gov’s plane is going next week? http://www.mydesert.com/articl

  • Rosco O’Toole

    For Profit Schools, Anti-Choice Legislation, Voter Suppression Laws, For Profit Prisons, Climate Denial, Evolution Denial. All TPPF causes, All Koch Bros. causes, All ALEC written laws, All Rick perry causes. Want to know where the govs plane is going next week? http://www.mydesert.com/article/20140124/NEWS03/301240005/Koch-brothers-conference-Palm-Springs-area-desert

  • Pro-ChoiceTexan

    I have lived a total of 22 years of my life in Texas, and it will be a great state once we rid our governor’s office and state legislature of the fascist sociopath Republicans currently in office. These people are doing way too much damage to our environment and our civil rights.

    • 1bimbo

      don’t take the progressive narrative at face value, great republicans have been the best stewards of this state for the past 30 years. the proof is in the job numbers and your protected freedom to do whatever you want in this state. go live in a blue state like new york, california or colorado for 22 years, then get back with us on the ‘rights’ thing

  • [email protected]

    Thanks, Forrest Wilder. But, also consider the more confusing reasons why for changes. People so perform for leaders, too. ACC graduates often obtain govt. jobs, but, not much attention is given to the interactions. Mikaela Rodriguez, for instance, wrote, “Tyrant ‘ s Foe,” on page 8 of February’s edition. The mention at the top, sure had a major impact in the international sphere, as any helping Khomeini ‘ s rise could go on, long about. But, that article’s mention of 34 years of extremely significant interactions molding modern China policies plus, the launch pad for the anti – abortion shifts, backward from when family planning was nearly free and legal in the seventies, “do not make it suffer,” a policy for the getuses, spermies, eggies, whatever, most influenced inside the circle. Which reflects, of course, the dominance of the very old Soviet circles here as well, serving those continually at the top.

    Private for profit prisons, a critical concept, but same with growing support for cannibalism, too, unfortunately, as well, more accepted in other areas than here, generally speaking.

    Sometimes I go by those buildings at UT with the names of donors. And consider their and others’ s support for helping to find cures to many diseases, leaders of such teams so often hostages for much of their lives. That show and pleasing authorities in a balancing act, illustrated the largest overwhelming international forces to turn hostile. The education emphasis tejano leader, not as Donna – doo, as wendy, used roots of forever gigantic families, children raised by children, with some of the bullying pushes, most of all, pushing cure teams as the greatest hostages to be trafficked most. Would finding another aids prevention and cure deserve again the worst social abuse of all time, in terms of observing the wealthy fundraise, then attack where support goes? Again, honesty locally, with the history of local hard line communist manifesto study holy-roller-howling type weekday morning lawyer groups, Hillary, you remember those people, come look and say step down, had enormous effects on overlapping and interacting causes.

  • David Fuller

    Funny I never heard of the Observer before and went straight to the about section. Weird that it claims to on neither side of the isle. Talking about fringe…….everything I read in this article is uber left fringe. lNot quite sure why you all don’t label yourself correctly? Are you all too scared to call yourself liberal leftist kooks?