by Amy Keller
Updated 12 months ago
When state leaders created the Collins Center for Public Policy in 1988, political leaders welcomed an independent source of unbiased information to illuminate issues that the state faced. Former Gov. LeRoy Collins and a bipartisan group insisted the organization would remain impartial and non-partisan. “We should not exclude any perspective, any theory, any attitude, any solution on a partisan basis,” said former Gov. Bob Martinez at the time.
Twenty-five years later, the ranks of Florida’s think tanks have swelled. Along with the Collins Institute, the legacy of the now-defunct Collins Center, at least 11 other organizations, funded by private, tax-exempt donations, now purport to provide ideas and research to the state’s lawmakers and decision-makers.
What’s changed, however, is that most of the think tanks now are grounded in an ideology or focused on a single issue. Even more notable is how some think tanks are aggressively blurring the line between information provider and advocate.
On one end of the spectrum today are groups registered under the IRS’ 501(c)3 tax-exempt classification — traditional think tanks like the Collins Institute that publish research reports but refrain from lobbying. The James Madison Institute, for example, openly brings a free-market philosophy to its reports, but Bob McClure, its president and CEO, says “our focus is on education and the issues and our mission — and we don’t ever want there to be some appearance that we’re somehow benefiting by lobbying some issue.”
At the other end of the spectrum are clearly defined lobbying organizations like the Foundation for Florida’s Future, founded by former Gov. Jeb Bush, that register as 501(c)4 non-profits. That classification eliminates tax deductions for their donors but enables them to openly lobby and run political campaigns.
The middle of the spectrum is the most dynamic — and controversial. The 501(c)3 law restricts political advocacy by charitable groups, but there’s a loophole. Organizations like Tarren Bragdon’s Foundation for Government Accountability can choose to operate under the law’s “h” section, which allows them to spend roughly 15% to 20% of their resources actively lobbying the issues they research — while preserving tax deductions and anonymity for their donors.
In addition to defining permissible lobbying expenses, the “h” section spells out what activities are inbounds: “I can’t say endorse Jane Smith over Bob Jones, but I can say here’s an issue we think you should vote in support of or vote against,” says Bragdon.
Bragdon, a former Maine state lawmaker who moved to Naples two years ago, acknowledges his group operates in a far different way than traditional hands-off research groups. Just issuing white papers won’t get the job done, he says. “Ultimately, a good idea doesn’t matter unless it becomes law and so if you want to have an impact, policymakers are the ones who can make that happen so you have to engage with them.”
Following are links to the state’s leading think tanks:
Foundation for Excellence in Education
Foundation for Florida's Future
James Madison Institute