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Playing to win: Conservative think tank rankles left with activism, anonymous donors

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Playing to win: Conservative think tank rankles left with activism, anonymous donors

PORTLAND — John Piotti says he pays no attention to the Maine Heritage Policy Center – and then quickly admits he's being flippant.

In reality, Piotti, a state legislator, and his Democratic colleagues are becoming increasingly wary of the free-market think tank and its quest for increased political influence.

“I don't ignore them, I take them seriously,” said Piotti, the representative from Unity. “And because they're often misrepresenting the truth, I take them particularly seriously.”

Piotti's criticism is extensive and shared by Democrats, who have been forced to fight several ballot initiatives shepherded by the policy center and its attempts to spread its ideology of limited government.

Democrats have cause for concern. The center was created by a handful of board members in 2002. Today, 36 individuals, including six staffers, work to advance its causes. The center has become increasingly influential, leading tax-reduction initiatives, offering research urging smaller government, running training seminars on how to get politically involved and hosting political forums, usually involving conservative candidates and conservative causes.

The center is perhaps best known for introducing two versions of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights — fiercely debated tax cap proposals rejected by voters in 2006 and 2009. Despite those defeats, the organization has continued to engage voters in traditional hot-button issues, including health care, education and taxes.

The center's position on taxes will sound familiar to voters. The organization says the state is overtaxed and unfriendly to business, and has rolled out several position papers to make its case.

It has also fed the public's oft-held suspicion that government is too wasteful. It recently published the names and salaries of every state employee on maineopengov.org, and linked it to the center's homepage.

According to the center, the site has received more than 100,000 unique visitors.

Piotti and other critics, however, claim the center has cloaked itself as a "scholarly research center" while advancing policy embraced by the extreme right and Libertarianism, a movement currently marshaled nationally by factions of the tea party.

The nonprofit organization also faces allegations that its increased involvement in this year's gubernatorial election pushes, if not violates, the political lobbying limits allowed by its tax-exempt status.

The center's political activism is made more relevant after a recent report in The New Yorker magazine detailing the tea party's billionaire benefactor, Koch Industries. The modern-day oil baron has funnelled millions into the nonprofit Americans for Prosperity group.

According to the story, AFP is at the nexus of a national web of like-minded nonprofits set up as analysis centers to produce policy papers challenging climate science and regulation of the financial industry. Billed as education positions, the analysis papers ultimately benefit the organization's anonymous corporate donors, the story says.

The furor over AFP would seem distant from Maine politics if not for the group's similarities to the Maine Heritage Policy Center. The connection is more than resemblance: Two months ago AFP started a Maine chapter and began partnering with the policy center to hold activist training seminars.

Further, AFP-Maine is headed by Trevor Bragdon, the brother of Tarren Bragdon, the 34-year-old chief executive officer of the policy center.

Tarren Bragdon, a former two-term legislator from Bangor, deflected accusations about the center, saying they're politics as usual and a byproduct of the organization's successful engagement in state economic policy.

"We're confident in the integrity of the center and its work," Bragdon said during an interview at the center's headquarters in Portland. "If people want to attack us, that's fine."

Despite hosting events with keynote speakers like Maine GOP gubernatorial hopeful Paul LePage and Marco Rubio, a tea party candidate from Florida running for U.S. Senate, Bragdon insists the center is as nonpartisan as its IRS filings say it is.

"What we want to see is a particular policy enacted," he said. "If a Republican does that, great. If it's a Democrat, great. ... Obviously one party is going to align with our philosophy more often than the other."

Bragdon denies that the center's policies are dictated by ideologies of the tea party or libertarianism.

"We're not anarchists," he said. "We're not anti-government, although we get labeled that by some extreme folks on the left."

Accusations of extremism

The center's pursuit of the electorate has been facilitated by its grass-roots activity. It has engaged local chambers of commerce and provided activist training that appeals to voters dissatisfied with the economy and government.

With Bragdon at the helm, the organization has also worked to engage the media, and its advisers have earned column space on newspaper opinion pages.

But critics say people influenced by the center might not be aware of its strict adherence to a free-market ideology or its connections on the far right.

Kit St. John, the executive director of the Maine Center for Economic Policy, a left-leaning nonprofit whose roots extend to 1993, said Bragdon's organization has no interest in improving government.

"Our suspicion is that they only want to denigrate government, take it apart," St. John said.

St. John also refutes Bragdon's claim that the center operates independent of extreme forces on the right, pointing to the inviting of GOP operatives including Grover Norquist to its events.

"We see their approach to be characterized by the famous quote from (Norquist)," St. John said. "He said he doesn't want to abolish government, he just wants to shrink it to a size that it can be drowned in a bathtub. That's an extreme statement."

Bragdon, who has several copies of Norquist's book "Leave Us Alone" in his Portland office, responded via e-mail, "(St. John) is quoting Mr. Norquist, known for his colorful comments, from 2001. He is not quoting me or The Maine Heritage Policy Center. Our mission is clear: We promote free-markets and limited government in Maine."

St. John also alleged that the center has engaged in promoting Republican candidates, a practice he believes violates its tax-exempt status.

According to IRS rules governing 501(c)3 organizations, the center is not allowed to participate in any "political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to a candidate."

However, the line is made famously vague by a provision allowing organizations to "educate" voters through outreach "if it's conducted in a nonpartisan manner."

Bragdon flatly denies that the center endorsed LePage during a July 6 luncheon also attended by Rubio.

"We did not endorse Mayor LePage, Marco Rubio, and any of the numerous other candidates or elected officials of both political parties who attend our events," Bragdon said. "We don’t endorse candidates. Period."

Pushing the limits

Michael Franz, an associate professor of government at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, has noticed the policy center's willingness to engage in political elections, including the gubernatorial race. In addition to holding events in which LePage was a keynote speaker, Franz said he anticipates the center will attempt to steer voters through carefully crafted candidate evaluations on their website.

"They've been increasingly active in a wider variety of controversial issues," Franz said. "More than likely they're taking advantage of the lax regulatory environment in terms of how political they can be."

Franz referred to recent court decisions loosening rules on just how much nonprofits and corporations can get involved in elections.

"They're responding to the rules of the game," he said. "They would probably make the case that what they're doing is permissible within the First Amendment, which the courts have recently been amenable to."

Franz said the center is like other conservative groups "willing to push the limits for the strict reason that they don't believe those limits are just."

"For some people, that's a good thing," he said. "To them it's information to make informed decisions. For others, it's a way to influence decisions that takes the power out of the hands of voters."

Franz said the center's critics might feel more comfortable if they knew who was behind its funding, and by extension, its policy initiatives.

The sources of any nonprofit's donations are private, although some organizations disclose more information than others.

St. John's group, for example, publishes annual reports listing all of its donors. However, the donations are not itemized, making it impossible tell who gave how much.

Bragdon describes the policy center's donors in general terms. The organization's most recent IRS filing showed about $1.3 million in contributions. Bragdon said 50 percent came from competitive grants awarded by foundations that give to free-market think tanks.

The rest, he said, is from 1,300 individual donors and corporations, most from Maine.

Bragdon didn't specify which foundations awards the grants. However, the center belongs to the State Policy Association, which has links to Americans for Prosperity, the Heritage Foundation and the Mercatus Center, tentacles in the so-called Kochtopus.

Bragdon refused to say if Koch Industries or Americans for Prosperity helped fund the policy center.

"There's this myth that we're funded by a handful of really big corporations," he said. "That would be great if that were the case. It would make my life a lot easier than working with 1,300 individuals."

Bragdon said St. John's requests for the center to disclose donations are a double-standard.

"Why do folks on the left want to know so badly?" he asks. "To what end?"

The center has a history of shielding its funding sources. Following voter rejection of the first TABOR referendum in 2006, the organization attempted to withhold campaign finance reports associated with its lobbying efforts.

The state Ethics Commission eventually ruled that the group had acted as a ballot question committee, which is similar to a political action committee and subject to campaign finance disclosure law.

The center's subsequent filing, released under protest, didn't identify individual campaign contributors, just a withdrawal from its treasury.

In 2009, the center collaborated with Maine Leads on TABOR 2 and a ballot measure proposing dramatic cuts in motor vehicle excise tax. Despite receiving nearly $400,000 from three national organizations to push the ballot initiatives, Maine Leads never registered as a PAC.

The Ethics Commission eventually levied a fine of $10,000. According to Jonathan Wayne, the commission's executive director, he and his staff advocated for a higher penalty.

"We felt this was a sophisticated operation well aware of its requirements," Wayne said.

Maine Leads officially dissolved earlier this year with some staffers joining the policy center. Trevor Bragdon, Maine Leads' grass roots director, departed for Americans for Prosperity.

Rising influence

The Maine Heritage Policy Center was founded in 2002. It received the coveted 501.c.3 nonprofit status in 2004, allowing donors to write off contributions.

Over that period, the center's donor funding has increased more than sevenfold. The policy center's most recent IRS filings show donor contributions close to or exceeding those of MCEP, founded 17 years ago.

Although voters' 2009 rejection of TABOR 2 was decisive, the organization has since elevated its profile, frequently testifying on bills at the state Legislature and publishing policy papers on its website.

Bragdon, who describes himself, as a "recovering politician," said operating in the political realm was required to advance the center's agenda.

Its initiatives have not been tepid. In addition to playing a bit part in the successful effort to repeal the 2009 tax reform law – legislation Rep. John Piotti spearheaded – it has since tackled issues nationally and locally.

Recently, the center threatened to sue the city of Portland over its effort to regulate a 19-year-old man who was providing free taxi service on Peaks Island.

During the health-care debate, Bragdon co-authored an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal warning about the perils of the national health care bill. He's identified as the CEO of the policy center and an adjunct fellow with the Manhattan Institute, a free-market think tank whose board of directors includes Bill Kristol and other conservative icons.

Before becoming the center's CEO in 2008, Bragdon performed health-care policy analysis for the Empire Center, a Manhattan Institute offshoot.

Despite Bragdon's connections to the web of free-market institutes, the center's CEO insists most of his organization's work is done independently.

But the connection has riled the center's critics, who claim its goal is to dismantle government.

According to St. John, the maineopengov.com site, with its listing of state employee salaries, illustrates his point. St. John called the move a cynical hijacking of transparency to foster public mistrust in government.

"It was a showy show of transparency," St. John said.

Bragdon disagreed, pointing to the site's 100,000 unique visitors, many state employees.

"If publishing that information is uncomfortable for some reason, then there needs to be a conversation about why it's uncomfortable," he said.

Despite its critics on the left, the Maine Heritage Policy Center's anonymous funding sources don't seem to bother the right. In conservative blogs, Bragdon is often mentioned as a potential candidate for higher office. Bragdon, a father of four adopted children, all under age 4, said public office isn't a consideration, at least not now.

In the meantime, Bragdon said he's content pushing the center's philosophies into policy. He is confident the national health care law will be overturned and his group will work to make sure it is.

Despite its collaboration with high-profile conservative think tanks, he said he'll work with any party that advances the center's agenda.

"I don't like to fight," Bragdon said, "as much as I like to win."

Steve Mistler is the Statehouse reporter for the Sun Journal in Lewiston. He can be reached at smistler@sunjournal.com.