Saturday, September 30, 2023

Empowering through ideas

Staff Writer | August 14, 2022 1:09 AM

A new era is dawning in the realm of objective data sharing and policy making.

The freshly founded Mountain States Policy Center is a free-market, independent think tank that provides fact-based research and recommendations to lawmakers, the media and the public.

No politics.

No emotions.

Just the facts.

“What really inspired it for me is I just felt like the politics had become so vitriolic in our area and in our state," Mountain States Policy Center co-founder and Vice Chair Becky Funk of Coeur d'Alene said Friday during a meeting with the Press Editorial Board.

"We need good policy," she said. "I think that it’s necessary to have an organization that stays out of the political fights and just talks about, ‘This is going to make life better in our state, this is how it’s going to affect the individual.’ For me, it’s moving out of that political aspect of government and moving more into the policy side. It’s the policy that matters, policies that need to be changed or improved upon."

The Mountain States Policy Center comprises a nine-person board of directors and a four-person research staff. The organization is based in Idaho but also serves Montana, Wyoming and eastern Washington.

Chris Cargill will step into the role of Mountain States Policy Center's president and CEO in September. He presently serves as the eastern Washington director at the Washington Policy Center.

"This is an idea that has really been talked about for quite some time to try to come up with a free-market, conservative think tank in our state and in other states as well that can provide free-market solutions, information to the media and work with lawmakers on different policy ideas that can advance the positive, forward-thinking mission of our states," Cargill said. "Our goal is to provide public policy research and analysis and empower individuals to be able to improve life here in the mountain states. Our goal is all about empowering through ideas."

Cargill and Funk both emphasized that Mountain States will foster strong relationships with the media.

“We might not always come down on the same side of issues, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to have an adversarial relationship," Funk said.

“The media is going to be a critical tool for us,” Cargill said. "You get the message out that way, by not being adversaries of the media, but working with all to try to get the information out to the public."

In its action plan, Mountain States Policy Center cites these reasons to act: To support school choice for all children and families; to reduce the tax burden and focus government on core functions; to help small businesses prosper and hire more people; to reduce health care costs by allowing the marketplace to work; and to demand transparency in government.

Its team of researchers is already working on its analysis of the Quality Education Act initiative that will be on the ballot in November.

“Our research, to be quite frank, shows this is not a very well-written initiative, that it could lead to a lot of legal troubles in the state," Cargill said. "Because of the way it’s written, it would drastically increase Idaho’s income tax and would take it to one of the highest numbers in the country.”

He said it’s important for people to understand throwing money at K-12 schools doesn’t guarantee great results.

"Spending more money does not equal better outcomes," Cargill said. "Even at $8,000 per student per year, which is roughly what Idaho spends, Idaho still gets better results in some areas than New York does, which spends $25,000 per student per year."

Another study Mountain States is conducting is on gas tax transparency. Cargill said Idaho pays 32 cents per gallon in gas taxes, plus a 18 cent federal gas tax.

"But no one knows that,” he said. "Gasoline is one of the only products that you purchase where the tax is actually built into the cost of the product.

“It’s hidden,” he said. “Policy makers can increase the cost of the gasoline tax, no one will really know, no one is held responsible.”

Cargill said Mountain States is proposing “truth in labeling,” a concept that has caught on in a few other states.

“Part of the reason we do that is because then, people know what they're paying. It’s their money," he said. "We all agree that gas taxes are needed, or some sort of tax is needed to fund roads and bridges and road repair. That’s not the issue. The issue is whether people should have a right to know how much they’re paying, and then they can hold their policy makers accountable."

He said both studies will be out in September.

As an apolitical organization and a nonprofit, the Mountain States Policy Center will not engage in lobbying.

"If a legislator is talking about an issue, they can certainly call us and say, ‘Would you research this?’" Funk said. "We’re even willing to have a representative come and speak at committee hearings, but we’re going to be staying in that 501(c)3 lane where we’re not going to be going to the Capitol and saying you need to do this or you need to do that. We’re just going to be there to present information.”

“We’re not going to come out and say, ‘Vote against this,’ or ‘Vote for that,'" Cargill said. "We will take a critical look at ballot measures. If a ballot measure is good, we will say, ‘This is good public policy because this.’ Or if a ballot measure is bad, we’ll say, ‘This is bad public policy because of this and here are some alternatives that they could use.’”

Mountain States will not engage in social media arguments. Cargill said one of its policies is to not respond on social media unless it's to a question about research.

“We will not be putting out rankings, we are not going to be getting into social media fights," Cargill said. “It’s not easy to have everyone training their gun at you and trying to come after you on a certain issue. We will, of course, always stand up for the integrity of the organization and the integrity of the research. What we’re not going to do is get into name calling. It is not helpful.

“I don’t want us to get into these Twitter fights,” he said. “We’re going to stand up for ourselves when we need to, but we’re not going to get into the back and forth.”

The organization will celebrate its official launch Oct. 5 in Boise and Oct. 6 at Independence Point in Coeur d'Alene. Cargill said it will also annually host a spring event in Coeur d'Alene and a fall event in Boise.

“We’re just really excited for what Mountain States Policy Center can do,” Funk said.

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