How Think Tanks Think
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The tea party movement is conservative, with Kentucky’s TP drawing attention for it’s recent congressional primary blow-out in Northern Kentucky.
Polling shows Kentucky TP folks as more diverse, hard to peg, but drawn to fiscal revolution for sure. It was BIPPS that pushed for legislative votes to be seen online, now something everyone expects, plus pushed to get rid of the CATS student testing system. So, labels aren’t always fair. The institute’s agenda is broader than it’s given credit for. Lately BIPPS chose to shine a light on various transparency and personal liberty examples, models reflecting efforts consistent with the institute’s view of (conservative) public policy success.
The institute bestowed Liberty Awards on a number of Kentucky policmakers. First honored: state Rep. Tom Burch and state Sen. Julie Denton. BIPPS noted that both are from Louisville, both chair the Health and Welfare committees in their chambers, and both have long tenures – 17 years for Denton and decades for Burch, the longest-serving House member. Both are popular in their parties and, one might add, popular among health advocates, from corporate execs to volunteers. They’re a powerful duo when teamed for shared goals. Burch is a Democrat, Denton a Republican. Focusing on Kentucky’s abused children, Burch and Denton held legislative hearings on the process for investigating child abuse and neglect.
An-other two-party combo for BIPPS is the Jamie Comer-Adam Edelen audit effort at the state Department of Agriculture. Of state Auditor Edelen and Agriculture Commissioner Comer, the Institute said, “Both put the interests of taxpayers ahead of partisan political considerations – and simply did what was right.” They’ve won kudos far and wide. In acceptance remarks, both young leaders gave bouquets to each other for the joint effort exposing mis-spending and irregularities at the Agriculture Department during the pre-Comer administration. Comer was wise to ask for the audit, and Edelen was smart to put it on the front burner.
Kentucky has three star-potential rookies, Comer, Edelen and Sec. of State Alison Lundergan Grimes – each just barely six months in office, each is fired up. Note that since the award, BIPPS has praised Edelen again. “Institute supports auditor’s effort to shine the light on special taxing districts operating in the pitch black dark,” the headline read. It is likely that $500 million to $1.5 billion of public funding goes through local boards – library, fire, water, sewer. State audits focus on state agencies and counties.
The highly conservative Club for Growth and highly liberal Common Cause both back the new wave of analysis and openness. Hope for bipartisanship is budding. Joint House and Senate teamwork was noted by BIPPS as well: the work of state Sen. Joe Bowen and state Rep. Mike Harmon to highlight the pension-funding crisis. Specifically Bowen and Harmon pushed to limit state bonded indebtedness to no more than 6 percent of state General Fund revenues. All states are battling debt management and the accumulation of in unfunded pension obligations.
BIPPS recalled Bowen’s quip: “We as a commonwealth cannot continue paying off Visa with MasterCard.” Another Democrat who won praise was state Rep. Mike Cherry, who, sadly, is retiring. Cherry’s efforts for action on the pension crisis as well as changes to the Kentucky Retirement System won institute recognition. Cherry’s unfailing efforts for veterans got mention, too. State Sen. Jack Westwood, also, sadly, heading to private life as a retired public leader, won a special BIPPS award. Westwood “helped pave the way to finally bring school choice to Kentucky,” the institute said.
Another issue, the Career Pathways law, led by Westwood these past few years, lets high school students move more to technical schools that better match to career goals, a laudable change. Calling this school-choice reform might be a slight exaggeration, the Kentucky Association of Manufacturers and its president, Greg Higdon, a former senator himself, have argued alongside Westwood for Career Pathways in order to strengthen our workforce base and to replace the huge cohort of retiring Baby Boomers.
School choice is a common BIPPS cause. Louisville’s Hal Heiner was recognized for forming the new state group pushing choice. All but a handful of states, including Kentucky, have some form of school choice. State Rep. Brad Montell also was honored in this BIPPS theme of education change. Montell worked for a pilot project in “true charter schools” in Kentucky. State Sen. Ken Winters was noted as well for efforts to “change the state’s policy allowing Kentucky parents to enroll their children in school districts other than the district in which they currently reside.” A former president of Campbellsville University where he led with great success, Winters, too, is retiring. He will be missed.
Democratic state Rep. Brent Yonts teamed with BIPPS and others to fight “onerous obstructions” proposed for the “meth bill” that eventually became law. Unfettered markets is a cornerstone for the Bluegrass Institute.
State Sen. Paul Hornback was recognized for his proposals on telecom and technology. States have a huge interest in advancing tech for a host of reasons. BIPPS got its start from dynamic Christopher Derry of Bowling Green, now a thought leader at WKU. Affable, intellectually energetic Jim Waters, a prolific fellow columnist at The Kentucky Gazette, is executive director. Kathy Gornik, the board chairwoman and president of Thiel Corp., is a noteworthy entrepreneur.
To survive, think tanks must often speak in the extreme. It takes a village of fundraising to sustain the thought and message. Think tanks tend to couch their mission and findings in strident terms, which draw love offerings from the like-minded. No money, and think tanks tank. Nationally, they also point blame. They risk quoting intellectual icons in regard to current facts or issues with a short leap of logic. They battle epidemics, scourges and those thinking less, or simply less thought of.
The requirement that think tanks must put facts and ideas through fairly orthodox filters can limit new thinking, intellectual freedom, giving way to rote association of data and topics to broad philosophies. Some think tanks seem to think you must buy their dogma or miss their karma. Compromisers are clearly not invited on the boards. Lawmakers and lobbyists, bent on compromise, won’t get think tank plaques.
Think of all those times someone kindly says, “I have something I want you to think about,” as you mentally add another item to your never-enough reading and thinking time. You could always call Jim Waters. Follow the think tanks, in thought for sure; deeds are open to debate. And thanks, BIPPS for making us think. A little thought, contemplation and idea celebration goes a long way.
Bob Babbage is a lobbyist and heads Babbage Cofounder He was Kentucky’s secretary of state and state auditor. He may be reached at Bob@BabbageCofounder.com.