Monday, December 9, 2013

A Concerted Attack: Who’s Behind the Push to Eliminate Retirement Security?

A Concerted Attack: Who’s Behind the Push to Eliminate Retirement Security?

With members in each of the 50 states and an annual war chest of $83 million drawn from major corporate donors that include the energy tycoons the Koch brothers, the tobacco company Philip Morris, and the multinational drug company GlaxoSmithKline, the State Policy Network is the center of a coordinated attack on retirement security for hard working public employees.  In recent documents released by The Guardian, it has been revealed that since 2009, SPN affiliates in fourteen states have authored reports on public pension reform, focusing on decimating the pensions for teachers, firefighters, corrections officers, and other public service workers.  Typically, these pensions average a mere $19,000 a year.  The requests to the Searle Foundation solely focused on pension reform total nearly $500,000 over the last few years. 

This year, seven states requested assistance for similar reports and campaigns on pension reform: AZ, CO, IL, MN, MO, NJ, and PA for a total $285,000.  Evaluations of success for each SPN affiliate range from union reactions, policymaker interactions, and increasing “brand” identity.  Every single proposal, however, evaluates success based on legislative victories.

Goldwater Institute for Public Policy

The request focuses on a litigation strategy to “stop public employee pension benefit manipulation.”  Through a legal analysis of a states’ constitutional gift clause, the Goldwater Institute intends to push pension reform.  “Success will be evaluated based on whether two lawsuits invoke the gift clause to achieve pension reform and inspiring at least five SPN affiliates to sending letters of inquiry to appropriate government sources for information on pension spiking.”

Independence Institute

The proposal focuses on a “campaign” for linking the Colorado public employees’ retirement age to the retirement age of Social Security eligibility.  The Independence Institute intends to “write a policy brief” and will “get out the message” by using media relationships and other platforms.  The II intends to also canvass two test counties.  Success will be determined through polling the general public before and after canvassing the two counties.  Ultimately, the introduction of legislation will be the measure, and final goal.

Illinois Policy Institute


The request focuses on “reform of the Chicago’s public employee pension system.” IPI plans to design a defined contribution plan for the City of Chicago and then conduct a campaign promoting their reforms.”  The request includes the use of an actuarial scoring in order to give the plan “more credibility.” 

The Guardian also revealed aspects of the request from IPI, rather than just the request summary.  This information is insightful as to the full lobbying and behind the scenes maneuvering IPI has already done on the issue.  The proposal says that "Mayor Emanuel has privately expressed the need for 401(k)-style changes to truly achieve reform.The institute plans to "leverage the leadership potential of Mayor Emanuel … as the spark for wider pension changes in Illinois." It adds that "friendly legislators would be welcome to draft legislation modeled on our policy work and work in tandem with Mayor Emanuel to move it forward in the legislative process."[i]


Center for the American Experiment

CAE plans to publish a report “debunking myths about Minnesota’s public sector pensions”.  Using public education, media hits, and direct lobbying in the legislature, CAE success will be evaluated on the quality of attendees at public events.  Specifically, CAE will evaluate success on “media hits, union reactions, and whether the paper is picked up by potential allies.

Show-Me Institute

The research proposed by Show-Me will be based on Missouri’s three separate defined benefits plans and how the plans “restrict the school’s ability to attract quality personnel.”  The report will focus on “the negatives of the current system”, asses the popularity of alternatives, and promote free market reforms.  Success is to be measured by “the placement of an op-ed, policymaker’s citing the work and legislative victories.”  Clearly, Show-Me is lobbying, and looking for legislators to give the report credibility.

Common sense Institute of New Jersey

Focusing on compensation for unused, earned sick leave, the campaign proposed by CINJ intends to detail how much taxpayers will save if the practice is curbed.  Success will be measured by media hits, legislative victories, and increasing the esteem of the CINJ “brand”. 

Interestingly, The Guardian released a few aspects of the proposal from CINJ, noting a cooperation with Governor Chris Christie:  “The grant bid that emanated from New Jersey… floats the idea of a campaign to support the efforts of the Republican governor Chris Christie in ending the ability of public employees to claim untaken sick days and vacation leave in their retirement packages.  The proposal states, "Governor Chris Christie has been waging a war to eliminate this practice; and CSINJ would like to provide ammunition." The title of the proposal is illustrative – Busting the Boat Checks – referring to the phrase Christie uses to denote the watercraft retirees are claimed to buy on the back of sick and holiday leave payments.  When contacted by The Guardian, CSINJ's president, Jerry Cantrell, “denied that the grant bid involved any element of lobbying, insisting instead that his group was providing a service that in the past might have been done by the decimated local media.”

Commonwealth Foundation

Per the request summary, the Commonwealth Foundation intends to “demonstrate the need for, and best practices in, public pension reform” by publishing a report that defines “the pension problem.”  The Commonwealth Foundation intends to “conduct a campaign explaining the problem and release a reform plan.”  Success is to be evaluated by “legislative victories, number of policy maker interactions, and number of speaking engagements.”

                As mentioned in The Guardian article, these SPN affiliates are coordinating across states, intentionally crafting proposals that can be used and replicated in other states.  The Searle Foundation notes and summaries include information regarding past Searle Grant History from 2009 to 2012.  Previous requests on pension reform came from seven states, totaling $209,500 in research grants that were approved.  From 2009-2012, the pension reform focused grant requests came from AL, MA, MD, MI, NH, NM, and NY.  What is unclear is if other requests from other SPN affiliates to study pension reform were submitted in this time frame but had been denied

Alabama Policy Institute
2009: Analysis of Alabama’s Unfunded Liabilities.  Low quality, low impact. 

Beacon Hill Institute
Pension Reform.  Research report not completed. 

Maryland Public Policy Institute
2010: Pension Reform.  Low quality, low impact. 

Mackinac Center for Public Policy

2010: Pension Reform.  Although they did not accomplish the policy change they had hoped for, their work was well covered by the press and played a demonstrable role in the debate over reform legislation.

Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy
2011: Pension Reform

Rio Grande Foundation
2010: Government Retiree Problem.  High quality, high impact.

Empire Center for New York State Policy
2009: The Public Pension Bomb... and How to Defuse It.  High quality, high impact.

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