Ed’s note: This is the first in a series of profiles on Maine organizations that attempt to influence the Legislature, the governor and the media through their research and advocacy.

The two biggest complaints heard about the fledgling Maine Heritage Policy Center based in downtown Portland is it’s too conservative and run by Republicans.

It’s founder, Bill Becker, proudly admits his organization ascribes to Reagan conservatism and can’t deny its Republican roots.

Becker started the group after the 2002 election when, he says, he found himself out of job after working on Peter Cianchette’s failed bid for governor. And, everyone else on his staff either worked on Cianchette’s campaign or for the Republicans at the Statehouse, save for his most recent hire, who worked for the National Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.

Still the group, as do other so called 501(c)3 non-profit, tax-exempt organizations in the state – both left and right leaning – can’t actively campaign for or contribute to political campaigns. And, Becker says, the Maine Heritage Policy Center avoids issues that don’t affect the state’s economy.

“We don’t touch social issues like abortion, gay rights or gun control,” Becker said, but focus on budgets, taxes, health care and education.

The group is part of the national State Policy Network that includes 42 state-based think tanks. That network was started by Thomas A. Roe, who was inspired by President Ronald Reagan to create free-market think tanks at the state level.

They are for limited-government involvement or a free-market economy where government “gets out the way,” Becker said, with a belief that low taxes and a deregulated health insurance market will lower the cost of doing business and attract more companies and jobs to the state.

The organization has become most widely known in Augusta and in the media for its almost unrelenting attack on Gov. John Baldacci’s Dirigo Health plan, particularly its subsidized insurance program known as DirigoChoice.

That’s thanks, in large part, to Tarren Bragdon, a former state representative from Bangor and assistant to then Senate President Richard Bennett. Bragdon analyzes health care issues for the policy center and keeps tabs on Medicaid costs. His work on projecting the program’s growth was recommended by the Legislature’s own Office of Fiscal and Program Review to a blue ribbon commission on Medicaid – a suggestion that was quickly quashed by Democrats in the group.

The Maine Heritage Policy Center also wrote the version of the Taxpayers Bill of Rights or TABOR that will appear on the November ballot if it passes a court challenge on whether all the signatures gathered by a separate taxpayers group were handed in on time.

TABOR, which started in Colorado, is now part of a national movement spearheaded by Grover Norquist of the Americans for Tax Reform, who reportedly worked with Newt Gingrich and the National Heritage Foundation to write the Contract with America.

Funding sources

Despite the name similarities, the Maine Heritage Policy Center is not a part of the National Heritage Foundation, which has a wide reach in conservative politics and is considered one of the most influential think tanks in the country.

The Thomas Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies is at the National Heritage Foundation, however, and the Thomas Roe Foundation has given the Maine policy center grants of up to $10,000.

The organization also gets money from the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, which encourages free-market think tanks worldwide, and at least $15,000 from the J.M. Foundation of New York City – another free-market group – to support its analysis of Medicaid.

Becker says the bulk of its money comes from private and corporate donors. According to the center’s tax returns, which are public record because of its non-profit status, Maine Heritage Policy Center brought in $150,000 in 2003 and $230,000 in 2004.

Becker said in 2005, for which no tax returns have yet been filed, the center brought in $347,000 and is projecting revenues of $485,000 for 2006.

The money is spent on wages, independent contractors, who do research, printing and travel, along with the traditional expenses of running an office.

The center currently employs Becker, who earned $67,300 in salary and benefits in 2004, two other full-time staff; two part-time staff; and three independent contractors, including Bragdon.

Along with Becker, Bragdon has become one of the most visible members of the center’s staff, getting some national attention for his analysis of Dirigo, most recently in an opinion piece he

co-authored in the Wall Street Journal.”

Picking issues

“Before we came along there was no direct response to Joe or Kit,” said Bragdon, referring to Joe Ditre of Consumers for Affordable Health and Christopher “Kit” St. John of the Maine Center for Economic Policy – two groups on the opposite side of the political spectrum from Maine Heritage.

Bragdon said they decided to go after Dirigo Health because Gov. Baldacci has made it the centerpiece of his administration.

“We wanted to inform the national health reform debate,” Bragdon said, “because Dirigo was getting so much attention” in other states based on its promise to insure the uninsured.

Under Dirigo, the state subsidizes an Anthem policy for small business employees and individuals, who meet income requirements. It was passed with the promise of covering the state’s 130,000 uninsured by 2009, but so far just over 9,000 people have been covered. Only one-third to one-half of them had previously been uninsured.

The biggest travesty of Dirigo, said Becker, is “it wiped any other health reform topic off the plate…Everything else was excluded from the conversation.”

Becker admits there is “life after Dirigo” and even sponsored a forum of the same name. His group from the start has supported tax and spending limits and is now focusing on TABOR, which would allow spending at the state and local level to increase at the rate of inflation plus population growth. All tax and fee increases would have to go out to the public for a vote.

“We can’t say ‘vote for it,'” Becker said, because the group’s tax-exempt status prohibits direct advocacy for political campaigns, but they can say, “here’s what our research shows.”

The organization has hired a full-time economist, Scott Moody, from out of state, who last worked at the Tax Foundation and Heritage Foundation, because it believes producing more research papers is where its future lies.

“People don’t dispute our numbers. They dispute our conclusions,” said Bragdon, and all his work and Moody’s work is sourced so others can analyze the data.

That isn’t likely to win converts in all circles.

“I don’t view their contribution to Maine political discourse to be very helpful,” said St. John of the Maine Center for Economic Policy, who pointed out that all staffers except Moody came out of the Maine Republican Party. “If you go to their Web site, you get a clear impression of what their ideology is, but in my opinion…they’re not very concerned about facts.”

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