By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

A new report from two left leaning organizations, Progress Florida and the Center for Media and Democracy, highlights how right-wing think tanks tied to The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Koch brothers have been influencing Florida policy.

Reporting around the state — and from groups like Progress Florida — has shown ALEC’s influence in Florida. In 2010, the Florida Legislature gained a majority of mostly very conservative Republican members. Since then, many pieces of model legislation backed and promoted by ALEC have made their way through the Legislature.

But according to this report, it’s not just ALEC and its many members in the Florida Legislature that are influencing state politics—it’s also state-level think tanks connected to ALEC.

According to Progress Florida, the new report details how the ALEC “uses supposedly ‘independent’ front groups to advocate for public policies designed to benefit ALEC’s corporate funders which compliant lawmakers then push into law.”

The report, entitled “Lawmaking under the Influence of Very Special Interests – Understanding the role of Florida ‘think tanks’ in driving a Koch-fueled, ALEC-allied corporate agenda,” takes aim specifically at the James Madison Institute (JMI) and the Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA). Progress Florida reported in a press release:

“Our research shows how ALEC relies on conservative ‘think tanks’ like JMI and FGA to insulate themselves against increased public scrutiny and widespread exposure of the controversial, corporate-driven policies they promote,” said Progress Florida executive director Mark Ferrulo. “We’ve found that these organizations march in lockstep with ALEC’s anti-middle class agenda.”

The report details how JMI and FGA falsely claim to be independent, local operators when in fact they are part of the State Policy Network, a national Koch-funded, ALEC-allied network of organizations. JMI, FGA and other State Policy Network member groups advocate for a national agenda driven by out-of-state corporate actors. Be it the economy, environment, education, workers’ rights or access to health care, State Policy Network member groups promote policies that are not only designed to fatten the bottom line of their corporate funders, but are consistently harmful to Florida.

“Floridians need to know how these groups misrepresent themselves and their agenda, and how much influence they maintain over lawmakers,” said Ferrulo. “We will continue to shine a bright light on ALEC, front groups like JMI and FGA, and the lawmakers who are doing their dirty work rather than acting in the best interests of our state.”

In the report, there are examples of both JMI and FGA lobbying for ALEC-backed bills moving through the Florida Legislature. For example, JMI supported a bill linked to ALEC that prohibited any city, county or municipality from adopting laws that required employers to give workers earned sick time. There was a successful campaign recently to get such a law for consideration on Orange County’s ballot, but this new state law pre-empts any decision made at the polls.

The funding streams for both JMI and FGA are also similar and even linked to ALEC.

JMI,  for example, “received $963,742 from Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund between 2005 and 2011, two funds that have been closely tied  to the Kochs but which obscure the percentage of their grants coming from Koch money,” according to the report.

FGA, one of the newer think tanks in Florida has already begun lobbying in Tallahassee and has pushed for bills that privatize government services, among other things, and bills that are similar to model ALEC legislation. Many of the initial donors that brought the groups leader to Florida from Maine, were donors to other ALEC and Koch connected groups, as well.

Update (11/15/13): The James Madison Institute submitted a response to Progress Florida’s report calling it “misleading.” Here is an excerpt of the group’s rebuttal written by JMI’s President Dr. Bob McClure:

Anyone who knows of or has worked with JMI would read the first few lines of this report and realize that it is full of cherry-picked misinformation and misleading statements. The James Madison Institute’s priorities are solely driven by our Florida-based staff and completely focused on the well being of our great state and its people.

We are nonpartisan, and our policy ideas are fueled by our dedication to JMI’s founding principles of expanding opportunities for all people, encouraging government efficiency and transparency, and promoting a strong Florida economy. And we have a 25 year history of working with people of all political affiliations to back this up. We receive support from thousands of people who believe in our guiding principles and our board is also made up of supporters who stand by the principles in which we view every issue.

…As such, JMI pre-dates the State Policy Network and many of the other think tanks in the nation. All SPN member think tanks are independent of SPN; being a member of SPN is like a business belonging to its chamber.

Because Florida is such a dynamic state, we often share our stories with other think tanks around the country, and one thing is for sure: Each think tank is proud of its home state, and we’re proud that there are organizations like ours looking out for the best interests of their individual states. The fact that we may have similar issues happening in each of our states should not be surprising.