Capitol influence: Shaping policy begins early for advocacy groups (Tulsa World)

By Barbara Hoberock and Randy Krehbiel

Shaping policy begins with shaping the legislative body that creates it.

That’s why special interests spend uncounted millions of dollars advancing their ideas to the public, and to identify and nurture potential candidates for office. They know the fate of a particular initiative is determined before the first piece of legislation on it is even filed.

The effort is much more involved than simple lobbying. It is sowing public policy seeds that may not bear fruit for years or decades or ever.

Nationally, these efforts are perhaps most evident in the conservative and liberal “think tanks” producing what are purported to be scholarly or investigative studies supporting one point of view or the other.

Probably the most successful has been the sprawling network associated with brothers Charles and David Koch.

Associated to varying degrees with more than 50 conservative organizations, the Kochs have played a big role in championing the idea that cutting taxes — especially income taxes — and shrinking government leads to greater prosperity.

High-profile liberal counterparts are George Soros’ Open Society Foundations, which say they’ve spent $13 billion over the last 33 years advocating worldwide. Their impact on Oklahoma politics seems to have been fairly minimal, given election results of recent decades.

Several of these influence groups were involved in Oklahoma’s 2016 elections, particularly on ballot initiatives and selected legislative races.

The American Civil Liberties Union, for instance, contributed more than $3.7 million in cash and in-kind contributions to advance criminal justice reform and pass State Questions 780 and 781.

Stand for Children, an education advocacy organization, spent more than $2 million in futile support of SQ 779, a 1-cent sales tax dedicated to education.

American Federation for Children, the school choice group founded by U.S. Secretary of Education nominee Betsy DeVos, spent $227,300 on Oklahoma legislative races.

Two forces at the state level are the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs and the Oklahoma Policy Institute.

OCPA, as it is generally known, was founded in 1993 by the late David Brown, an Oklahoma City physician and longtime trustee of the Heritage Foundation, one of the older Washington think tanks and an important influence on the Reagan administration of the 1980s. According to news reports, it has also played a key role in the formation of President Donald Trump’s administration.

OCPA’s board of directors includes some of the state’s most prominent businessmen, among them Devon Energy Chairman Emeritus Larry Nichols of Oklahoma City and Tulsa energy executives John Brock and Lloyd Noble II. The board also includes former Gov. Frank Keating and former U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn.

The 13-member staff issues position papers on a number of issues, including tax policy, justice reform and education. OCPA does not contribute to candidates, but recently formed a 501(c)4 affiliate, OCPA Impact, to act as its political arm.

Organized as a 501(c)3, OCPA’s most recent federal tax return, for 2014, shows $3.5 million in assets and $1.8 million in contributions.

The more liberal Oklahoma Policy Institute, known as OK Policy, is smaller and newer than OCPA. Founded in Tulsa in 2008, it is critical of many of the fiscal policies promoted by OCPA and similar organizations.

Also organized as a 501©3, OK Policy has a staff of nine and reported 2014 revenue of $745,979 and assets of just under $500,000. Its board members come primarily from the social services, education and academic worlds.

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