Much has been written about the influence the Koch Brothers and the organizations they fund, like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), have on advancing the right-wing agenda nationally. They have distorted such important issues like climate change, gun safety and basic social justice issues with an incestuous web of think tanks, pr operatives and friendly media organizations that invent and then spin their agendas.
Many here maybe surprised to learn that a Koch-funded and ALEC-affiliated organization has been enormously successful shaping the policy agenda in blue Massachusetts with barely any notice. In fact, they have integrated themselves into the upper echelon of power among the political and media elites in the Commonwealth, gaining a respectable perch from which to advance parts of the Koch/ALEC agenda.
For nearly 20 years David Koch, his foundation or one of his companies has supported the Pioneer Institute. According to the Center for Media and Democracy and the Pioneer Institute’s public disclosures, the Koch connection has given Pioneer more than $750,000, but that does not include several years when Pioneer did not categorize donors. So it is reasonable to assume Koch has given Pioneer more than $1 million during this period. In each of the last three years, Pioneer has disclosed Koch giving them more than $100,000–but the exact figure could be much higher–towards their $1.5 million operating budget.
For Koch, Pioneer is a cog in what can only be described as a “vast rightwing” web of foundations, think tanks (more like “stink tanks) and public-relation companies that have warped our public policy discussions in favor of the richest one-hundredth of one percent. Just as the tobacco industry spent millions over decades spouting “research” that cigarettes were not harmful, the Kochs and their allies, have amplified this effort, creating scores of Pioneer Institute’s across the country (and coordinated by the State Policy Network–see below) to advance their conservative policy objectives. Given the long and increasingly generous funding David Koch has provided Pioneer, it is evident Mr. Koch feels his investment is paying off in Massachusetts.
Since the tragic killing of Trayvon Martin last year, a light was cast on the role of the Koch-supported ALEC. ALEC develops model legislation that is filed by conservative (or unwitting) state legislators for passage. Among their most notorious “successes” has been their role in shaping Arizona’s racist anti-immigration law; pushing legislation to stop anti-climate change initiatives; advocating for anti-labor “Right-to-Work Laws” and using Florida’s “Stand Your Ground Law” as a template for other states (including Massachusetts) to adopt.
Pioneer has close ties to ALEC. First, as a member of the State Policy Network, which provides “strategic assistance” to “state-based free market think tank(s),” Pioneer shares a “Chairman” level sponsorship status in ALEC. In addition, Pioneer is has been an active member ALEC’s Education Task Force, which has been a driving force in the privatization of public education across the country.
Koch and other deep conservative pockets fund a myriad right-wing organizations, so it is no surprise that Pioneer is part of this network. But what may surprise some is the level of interconnection and agendas some of these groups have.
For example, the Sidney Swensrud Foundation, founded by the former head of Gulf Oil in the 1950s, has been a long time source of funding for Pioneer. This Foundation is also a longtime supporter of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) an anti immigrant organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center was labeled a hate group in 2007. Among the many accomplishments FAIR claims credit for is their role in crafting Arizona’s anti-immigration law (that apparently is a badge of honor for the rightwing).
But with major benefactors like David Koch and other conservatives (follow the links), Pioneer is not the wonkish, right-leaning public policy think tank they represent themselves to be. In reality, they are a frontline outpost for the conservative/corporate movement that for generations has spun the American public about a wide range of health, safety, human rights and social justice issues, all in the name of an unfettered economic system that harkens back to the Gilded Age.
At the end of the day, people like David Koch do not give money to an organization–year after year for nearly twenty years–unless he thinks his investment is paying off. Based on his contribution pattern, Koch must feels that Pioneer is advancing his agenda.
Of course Pioneer does calibrate their messaging for the liberal Massachusetts audience. Just last week they called for increasing taxes to pay for Massachusetts’ transportation needs. This position partly illustrates the severity of our transportation problems–even Pioneer understands that tax increases have to be part of the solution. But Pioneer supports the most regressive tax option: increasing gas taxes and fares for urban commuters, instead of the more progressive approach recommended by Gov. Patrick. And how much cover did Pioneer give House budget makers who today released a gas tax / sin tax to fund a more limited transportation package?
What is truly surprising is the level of acceptance Pioneer has developed in Massachusetts. They are frequently quoted in all the local newspapers, have guest OpEd columns and activity interact with city and state power brokers. Just last week, the former Inspector General of Massachusetts joined Pioneer, which the Globe described as a bland “boston-based think tank”.
In many ways, Pioneer deserves the proverbial “tip of the hat” from progressives. Their faux aura as an independent conservative public policy think tank has duped politicians, media outlets and civic organizations into believing their motives and information can be trusted.
The truth is far from that. It is imperative that the progressive community in Massachusetts set the record straight. Our public officials need to be educated about the motives of those behind the curtain at Pioneer. Media organizations must not be able to rubber stamp Pioneer’s PR spin as an “independent” source of information and civic groups that partner or participate in Pioneer events need to understand the real motives of the people they are standing with.