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Conservative group shapes Alaska policy debate with Outside help

  • Author: Alex DeMarban
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published September 14, 2014

A self-described free-market think tank that publishes the earnings of thousands of public employees in Alaska is not so open when it comes to disclosing its financial supporters -- including the conservative Outside group that has funneled large grants its way.

One of the values of the Alaska Policy Forum is not disclosing donors, but the source of its limited money is less important than the group's focus on transparency in government, fiscal accountability and school reform, said David Boyle, executive director.

"Money doesn't buy us, and we don't have a price," said Boyle, the forum's only full-time worker and a retired U.S. Air Force major. "That's why I work for free. You can cut my pay and it has no effect on me."

These days, everyone works for free at the little-known organization in downtown Anchorage. Five years old, the forum is part of a network of conservative think tanks in all 50 states advocating for limited government, school choice and the reining in of labor unions. The network is tied to conservative donors such as the Koch brothers, but it's often impossible to identify which donor is funding which think tank.

Boyle said the forum has complete autonomy and that many of its donations, small ones, come from about 165 Alaskans. "We are completely Alaska-centric," said Boyle, 70.

The policy forum is small, with just three board members and other volunteers. But conservative lawmakers rely on it for information, said Bob Griffin, who serves on the board along with Boyle and Paula Easley, former executive director of the Resource Development Council.

Rep. Mia Costello, R-Anchorage, asked the policy forum to weigh in during a budget hearing earlier this year when she chaired the House's Fiscal Policy Subcommittee. "Their information is really relevant as we attempt to reduce our budget. Their research helps frame the need to do that," she said.

Some say the forum has raised issues that would have gone unnoticed, such as its 2010 report calling the state's new $87 million crime lab excessive.

"The discussion on the crime lab wouldn't have even come up if it hadn't been for Alaska Policy Forum," said Rep. Wes Keller, R-Wasilla. "They've been a valuable source of information."

Opponents argue the group's data is often misleading and presented out of context. That includes the time the forum said the Anchorage School District pays much more than districts in Seattle and San Francisco to educate students. The Anchorage district corrected the claim with research.

"It distracts from a constructive conversation when you're not providing accurate, honest information," said Pat Higgins, an ASD board member. "You can't make good decisions when you rely on their data."

Angering public employees

The group's most controversial work has been publishing payroll expenses of local governments and the state, an effort that may get more attention as Anchorage voters consider limiting municipal earnings and union power with a ballot measure in the Nov. 4 election.

The lists, for the Anchorage School District, the state and other entities, are available at the group's website. But last month, the policy forum published and distributed more than 80,000 booklets showing what municipal workers earned.

Inserted into the Alaska Dispatch News, the booklets reported that more than 2,500 employees each had a total compensation -- described as total earnings, overtime and benefits -- exceeding $50,000. Employees' union affiliations were included, and the booklets contained an alphabetical index to ease searches for individuals.

Robert Reese, listed as a foreman for Municipal Light and Power, was reported having the most total compensation at $295,530, including $97,506 in overtime. An additional 887 employees were reported to have total compensation above $150,000. Police, firefighters and electrical workers topped the list.

Boyle said the average total compensation was $130,000, more than the $74,000 median income for an entire Anchorage household.

The list indicates senior employees get more overtime than younger workers so they can spike retirement pay, which is based on the highest-earning years, he said.

"I don't know if you can reduce (wages), but we need to control the cost of government," Boyle said. "Health care and retirement are huge issues."

The booklets -- Boyle said they cost $20,000 -- didn't sit well with many municipal workers. The angry responses Boyle received included two emails titled "donations" that contained computer viruses.

"One guy called on the phone and was inebriated, I think, using very nasty four-letter words," Boyle said. "He told me to do something with my sister. Another guy called a few days later: bleep, bleep, bleep."

Higgins said printing the names of everyone from custodians to teachers -- rather than just positions -- is "hateful" and not constructive.

"It can be demoralizing, and morale makes a big difference when we're trying to recruit, attract, motivate and keep people who perform at a high level," Higgins said.

Derek Hsieh, president of the Anchorage Police Department Employees Association, which represents about 500 officers, dispatchers and others, said public employees hate the lists.

The Alaska Policy Forum's attacking of employees is counterproductive because it demoralizes the workforce, making it harder to retain workers, he said. If anything, the difficulty the police department has filling academies suggests pay may be too low. "The question I have for my buddies over there is that if we are unable to attract people at current wages, what do we do?"

Hsieh said the booklet's total compensation is not an accurate reflection of what employees pocket, though the average person might think it is. They show the costs to the municipality, which includes payments for Medicare and Social Security, benefits that employees don't count but that every employer pays.

"I love that term 'think tank' because I actually don't think there's a lot of thinking going on over there," said Hsieh. "Data can help drive decisions but it needs to be done in a way that's meaningful and consistent. That's the problem. These guys are putting out data to drive a political agenda, and that's not necessarily the best idea."

A sergeant with 20 years in the department, Hsieh was the 208th highest paid municipal employee for 2013. The published base pay of $109,663 looked correct, but the total compensation of $188,069 was off by a double-digit percentage, he said. He believes his benefits were smaller than reported.

Nancy Usera, director of employee relations at the municipality, said the city sent the policy forum a list of the actual wages and benefits paid for each employee last year, as requested by the policy forum.

"It's money out the door," she said. "It's the amount we actually spent on behalf of an employee."

Boyle said the forum publishes what the municipality provides. Names are included to show the positions are staffed by real people, which is useful if departments are reduced.

"Here it is, folks. You make the judgment," he said. "We hope it opens people's eyes and informs them."

Hsieh asked to meet with Boyle with a reporter present to discuss the data in the booklets. Boyle rejected the request, saying he was busy.

Is the policy forum allied with lieutenant governor candidate and Mayor Dan Sullivan, who sponsored the "Responsible Labor Act" last year that will limit raises, bonuses and union negotiating power if approved by voters in November?

Sullivan said in an email that he "has not been in contact with the Alaska Policy Forum." The group provides transparency in government, a beneficial service, Sullivan said.

He did not answer follow-up questions asking if municipal salaries are too high and retirement spiking is a problem.

"Mayor Sullivan is not interested in weighing in on this political issue at this time beyond his previous statement," said Bryce Hyslip, Sullivan's communications director at the municipality.

Boyle and Griffin, who serves on the municipality's Budget Advisory Commission, said they rarely interact with Sullivan. "I'm not here to make friends with politicians," said Boyle.

Think-tank network

The Alaska Policy Forum was created in 2009 after Boyle, who was Alaska chairman for the McCain-Palin ticket, sought a new project to keep busy in retirement. Boyle and Anchorage engineer Ray Kreig -- who donates office space to the group -- decided to create one of the free-market think tanks that existed in other states.

Providing much of the money up front was the Donors Capital Fund in Alexandria, Virginia. Along with its sister organization, Donors Trust, the groups promote "liberty through limited government, personal responsibility, and free enterprise," their websites say.

The money they provide comes from anonymous donors. Mother Jones magazine last year called Donors Trust the "dark-money ATM of the conservative movement" and said over the past decade it has "funded the right's assault on labor unions, climate scientists, public schools, economic regulations, and the very premise of activist government."

The group has funneled more than $400 million to organizations across the nation, the magazine reported. Tax records show that large donors to the Donors organizations include conservatives such as Charles and David Koch, bogeymen for the Alaska Democratic Party after Koch Industries shut down the Flint Hills Resources refinery in North Pole.

During Alaska Policy Forum's first two years, Donors Capital Fund provided grants that helped pay for capacity building, a development director and other services, tax records show.

Whitney Ball, president of Donors Trust and a board member on Donors Capital Fund, said the fund provided $192,000 to the Alaska Policy Forum in 2009 and 2010.

That represents most of the $355,000 the group raised during its first two years, money that helped the think tank at the time pay a reporter, an executive director and the development director.

Donors Capital Fund is a donor-advised fund classified as a public charity, allowing donors to give anonymously. Ball would not say which donor or donors had recommended the Alaska Policy Forum for grants.

She said the "dark-money" allegation is "unfair and misleading."

"We follow the same rules and operate in the same manner as other donor-advised funds," including the left-of-center Tides Foundation, she said.

Ball also serves on the board of the State Policy Network in Arlington, Virginia, another entity that has received large donations from the Donors groups.

The network is the umbrella organization for 64 think tanks in all 50 states, including the Alaska Policy Forum. It provides webinars and trainings to the members, on topics such as communication, fundraising and running a nonprofit, said Meredith Turney, director of communications for the policy network.

Boyle said the policy forum doesn't get money from State Policy Network, just professional support and networking at annual meetings.

The policy forum worked with another free-market think tank in November that promoted arguments opposing Obamacare. The policy forum co-sponsored a town hall meeting in Anchorage on Obamacare with officials from Foundation for Government Accountability, from Naples, Florida. Another sponsor was Americans for Prosperity Alaska, also backed by Charles and David Koch.

At the time, the Florida think-tank and Americans for Prosperity apparently had a role in the creation of two mysterious websites that encouraged Alaskans not to enroll in Obamacare, according to a news report.

Three days after the town hall meeting, Gov. Sean Parnell announced he would reject Medicaid expansion. Early this year, the Florida group took credit for the move, according to the State Policy Network newsletter that runs updates from member think tanks.

"In Alaska, FGA Senior Fellows Christie Herrera and Josh Archambault led an intensive, on-the-ground effort, including legislative and executive branch briefings, town halls and press interviews, that resulted in Governor Sean Parnell rejecting Medicaid expansion as a 'hot mess,'" said the report.

Education a focus

Education has also been a key focus for Alaska Policy Forum. For example, the group has published a report card of school performance in Anchorage based on student test scores.

Boyle, Griffin and David Nees, another volunteer for the forum, have each run for the Anchorage School Board more than once. They lost each time, though Griffin came close to knocking off Higgins in 2011. Another volunteer is former Anchorage Mayor Tom Fink, who chairs the group's Education Choice Task Force.

It's in education where the group has received another reported donation. The Friedman Foundation for Education, based in Indianapolis, gave $20,000 in 2012, according to its latest tax forms. That was more than one-third of the contributions received by the forum that year.

Friedman Foundation is a prominent advocate for education vouchers and released a poll saying Alaskans favor educational vouchers. The Alaska Policy Forum has used the group's reports to advocate for huge changes to the state's educational system, including this year as the Legislature considered Senate Joint Resolution 9, calling for a state constitutional amendment that would have opened the door for public funding to be used for private and religious schools.

In the March/April newsletter of the State Policy Network, the Alaska Policy Forum reported that it played an important part in the issue.

"The governor of Alaska has called this legislative session the 'Education Session,' a theme the Alaska Policy Forum has played a key role in shaping," the report said. "APF's Ed Choice Task Force has been instrumental in creating buzz around a resolution to amend the constitution so that public funds are no longer prohibited from going to a nongovernmental school."

Wasilla Republican Sen. Mike Dunleavy, who sponsored Senate Joint Resolution 9, is one of the conservative lawmakers who rely on the group for information, said Griffin, 54 and a pilot who retired from the U.S. Air Force.

"We get frequent phone calls from legislators asking if we can look into this and that, and supplement (information) while their staff is busy," Griffin said.

"We've interacted frequently with Dunleavy's office and Rep. Keller as well," he said. "They've been proponents of school choice and there's no denying the policy forum is squarely in the camp of increased school choice."

Along with other free-market think tanks, the Alaska Policy Forum held a Friedman Legacy Day event on July 31, celebrating Milton Friedman's birthday. The group awarded Dunleavy the "Education Superman award for championing education reform for all Alaskan children," according to an update in the State Policy Network newsletter.

Dunleavy, a retired teacher, said he wasn't available to receive the award because of a scheduling conflict. He said he does most of his own research on education and can't remember personally turning to the group for data, though his staff may have. One of his employees, Bethany Marcum, said she donates less than $100 a month to the policy forum and is a strong supporter who sometimes works with the group because she believes in transparency in government.

Dunleavy said the group was helpful in introducing him to the Institute of Justice, a libertarian law firm in Arlington, Virginia, and an associate member of the State Policy Network. The institute testified before the Legislature in support of the state constitutional amendment on education.

"I like what they do. I think it's another voice in the whole mix and adds balance to the discussion," Dunleavy said of the policy forum.

Griffin said the policy forum has refined its message on education. He's focused in part on improving what he called the state's crisis in early childhood literacy. And the forum increasingly wants to improve statewide education, not just schools in Anchorage. The forum has advocated strongly to increase state support for charter schools, which got a boost this year with increased funding from the Legislature.

Griffin acknowledged the policy forum made mistakes in its early years -- related to complicated accounting details -- that led to misunderstandings with the school district. "No doubt there's a learning curve," he said. "We started as community volunteers, and when I first got started in this, I knew frankly very little about what was going on."

But the group has "raised a lot of awareness" and improved its accuracy. "We've got around bumping into walls and found our way through the maze pretty well now," he said.

Meantime, funding has slowed. In 2011 and 2012, the most recent years for which tax reports are available, grant income fell below $100,000 total.

Another $5,000 came from Donors Capital Fund in 2011. That was the last time the Donors fund distributed money to the policy forum -- or that a donor selected the group for grants, said Ball.

The reduced income seems apparent at the group's website, where sections in need of updating show dated collective bargaining agreements and a list of noncompetitive contracts awarded by the state years ago. An oil-tax calculator tallies what producers paid in taxes -- under the former tax law.

Boyle said he and others at the policy forum are doing what they can, including recently posting salaries from the Ketchikan Gateway Borough in Southeast, and trying to wrestle earnings data from reluctant entities such as the Fairbanks North Star Borough.

"We're the only ones doing this," he said, and the group's time and volunteers are limited.

So is its money. The forum has about $75,000 in the bank, but it will make the most of that cash. "We don't have a lot of overhead and we can go on for quite a long time, unlike the state," he said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Ray Kreig is an attorney. He is an engineer.

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