Why Texas Needs Independent Think Tanks

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This commentary originally appeared in Breitbart Texas on May 13, 2014.

“Think tank…” For the average American, the phrase likely conjures up a range of thoughts, from a vague wrinkle of the brow to a silent muse lines along the lines of a classic Jerry Seinfeld sketch, “It’s a tank. To think in. I’ll just do my thinking in this tank…"

There are some 4,500 policy institutes or “think tanks” worldwide with about 200 in the U.S., according to Wikipedia, which itself is a variety of an online crowd-sourced think tank, replete with white papers and research, much of it of decent quality. About think tanks, Wikipedia notes that they, “…perform(s) research and advocacy... Most policy institutes are non-profit organizations… Other think tanks are funded by governments…”

The Lone Star State’s own free market think tank, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, was established in 1989 years ago in San Antonio. Public education reform was its founding purpose. Now, 25 years later, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, or TPPF, is America’s largest state-based liberty-minded think tank, having grown from a staff of three to 40 today. 

Providing office space for two score people in the center of America’s fastest-growing big city is a challenge; which is why TPPF is building its own new headquarters in downtown Austin, only two blocks from the Capitol. May 14 is the official building dedication with TPPF’s staff expected to move in just as the Texas Legislature’s 2015 session begins in January. 

Explaining what the staff at the Texas Public Policy Foundation does best starts with what they don’t do: “pay to play” or “research for hire.” Some foundations or bands of experts hire themselves out with the understanding that the client is paying for an opinion rather than independent research, not so TPPF. 

TPPF’s guiding philosophy is on the web: “…to promote and defend liberty, personal responsibility, and free enterprise in Texas and the nation by educating and affecting policymakers and the Texas public policy debate with academically sound research and outreach.” As a result, most of TPPF’s support comes from liberty-loving, hard-working Texans—people who agree with the Foundation’s mission and share its vision. 

So, why a think tank? 

Policymakers, both elected representatives and appointed officials, need information to make sound decisions. Most of that information comes from government itself via staff who work for the policymakers or for a government agency. Thus, government decision making has a built in government-centric bias. Lobbyists also seek to provide information to policymakers. Lobbyists can work for labor unions, companies, or even government itself. But, unlike the staff at a think tank, the vast majority of lobbyists aren’t in the business of developing original research to bolster their efforts—they work for a client or a list of clients, a list that may change frequently. Further, lobbyists often advocate for more government power, so long as it helps their client. Thus, lobbyists also tend to see government as central—after all, lobbyists are lobbying government. 

Some privately-funded think tanks, such as TPPF, operate outside of this government-centric worldview. They provide legislators and other government officials with ideas from outside the halls of government. In TPPF’s case, these ideas promote liberty and efficiency, and most importantly, advocate for the legions of Texans who, if possible, just want government to leave them be. 

A recent vignette illustrates the vital role TPPF plays in Texas’ civil society.

Texas began to deregulate its electricity market in 1995. This resulted in a more efficient market with private industry, not government, determining what power plants to build and how much to charge for electricity with consumers, not government, making the choice of from whom to buy electricity.

But, some companies view government regulation as a tool that may be manipulated for profit. They, and their lobbyists, promoted the view that Texas was running out of electricity. To solve the problem, consumers needed to subsidize electricity producers’ construction of more power plants. They supported this idea with a barrage of radio ads in Texas earlier this year as they worked hard to convince the Texas Public Utilities Commission to approve a so-called “capacity market.” 

For the free-market thinkers at TPPF, a capacity market was the wrong idea for Texas. They immediately went to work, looking at other areas of the nation where capacity markets were instituted, but failed to deliver. They wrote research papers, calculating that the cost to Texas consumers would be about $3.2 billion per year. They made themselves available for interviews with the press. They testified before the Legislature. All of these actions were taken because it was the right thing to do (neither TPPF nor its staff was paid to take a position against a capacity market).  

The capacity market and its multibillion dollar tax on consumers went from looking like a sure thing to a debatable idea—an idea that’s now on hold after a vigorous public discussion that may not have happened were it not for TPPF. 

The Texas Public Policy Foundation, led by Brooke Rollins and more than three dozen staff working with Texas’ legislators and grassroots activists are honored to do their part to help keep Texas free and strong. 

The Hon. Chuck DeVore is the Vice President of Policy at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

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