Illustration by Chris Gash 

People often give lip service to the importance of states in US public policy, but it’s easy to forget just how significant their role is. States partner with the federal government in establishing rules and providing outlays for Medicaid and other critical social programs. The bulk of state-level spending goes toward education and health programs that are crucial to both personal success and economic prosperity. Through their tax and spending decisions, in short, state governments strongly affect the quality of life for all Americans.

Back in the early 1990s, I helped create what is now called the State Priorities Partnership (SPP), a network of organizations that brings greater attention to policies enacted by those governments. For most of its history, the partnership was known as the State Fiscal Analysis Initiative. Two years ago, leaders of the network changed its name to reflect the role that member organizations have come to play not only in policy analysis but also in advocacy and coalition building. Today SPP encompasses nonprofit research and advocacy groups in 40 states and the District of Columbia. These organizations work with other civic groups to raise the level of accountability among state lawmakers, and they work in particular to shine a light on how state policies affect low-income people.

SPP groups, like the governments that they monitor, operate largely outside the national limelight. Yet these organizations have logged many notable accomplishments. In 2005, the Colorado Fiscal Institute played a leading role in a successful campaign to suspend some aspects of TABOR (the so-called Taxpayer Bill of Rights), a state constitutional amendment that had devastated Colorado’s ability to fund education and other public services. In 2013, the Louisiana Budget Project demonstrated that a proposal by Governor Bobby Jindal to replace Louisiana’s income tax with an increased sales tax would lower taxes for the wealthy while imposing a higher burden on low-income people. That analysis fueled opposition to the proposal, and Jindal ultimately withdrew it from consideration.

Along with its work in individual states, SPP promotes model policies across states. The partnership, for example, has successfully campaigned for state-level Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) measures. In 2013-14, those measures led more than nine million working households to receive $3 billion in EITC payments. In 2003, when Congress cut federal income tax rates, SPP worked with member groups to help 18 states and the District of Columbia “de-couple” their tax laws from the US tax code. Historically, many states have aligned their income tax rates with their residents’ federal tax obligations. So these decoupling efforts allowed states to preserve hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue and to reduce cuts to vital programs.

Over the course of more than two decades, SPP has emerged as a model for funder collaboration. Total funding for the partnership amounts to $20 million per year, and that money comes from eight national foundations and from more than 400 state and local foundations. In 2009, the Council on Foundations recognized the farsighted work of SPP’s funders by honoring them with its award for Distinguished Grantmaking Through Collaboration.

By drawing on such support, SPP has evolved into a resilient constellation of policy groups. Located in every region of the country, operating in both “red” states and “blue” states, the partnership has become a critical resource for legislators, media outlets, and advocacy organizations. At each stage of its history, it has found ways to remain relevant within the constantly changing realm of state fiscal affairs.

Building a Field

In 1991, I joined the Ford Foundation as a program officer. Over the next few years, I worked with others to develop what was essentially a new field. At that time, state government was a neglected area for grant-making, and analyzing state budget issues from the perspective of low-income people was uncharted territory. To the degree that foundations engaged in public policy, they tended to focus on activity at the federal level or on developments in particular sectors—education, for example.

From the start, my colleagues and I worked closely with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), which coordinated the initiative and provided technical and policy support for it. CBPP, a widely respected research and policy institute, had previously focused its attention on budget issues at the national level, and this initiative marked a shift into state-level budget analysis. As a first step, we recruited three national funders—the Ford, Annie E. Casey, and C. S. Mott foundations. Guided by Iris Lav, who held the recently created position of state policy director for CBPP, we then looked for organizations that met our criteria for state-level partners. The ideal partner, we believed, would produce work that had three qualities: It would earn the trust of multiple stakeholders (even those with different policy preferences). It would be readily comprehensible to legislators, media representatives, and nonprofit advocates. And it would be timely enough to in influence current debates.

In 1993 and 1994, funders of the initiative made grants to an initial set of 12 organizations. Half of those groups were child advocacy organizations associated with the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count program. Two were tax advocacy groups with strong labor union ties. The remaining partners included a legal services center, a coalition of faith-based groups, and two new organizations in Maine and California.

None of the 12 groups fully conformed to our model. The child advocacy groups had considerable experience in data collection and analysis but no experience in working with state budgets. A faith-based organization in Alabama had impressive experience in outreach on public policy but limited capacity for budget analysis. A similar pattern applied to most of the other groups. We resolved to help these partner organizations converge on a common model.

Complicating that process of convergence has been the extraordinary variety of organizations that belong to the partnership. Not only are they free-standing groups with their own boards of directors and their own local alliances, but they tend to have different perspectives on how to approach fiscal policy debates. They vary in their tolerance for political risk and in their willingness to take positions on controversial issues (such as whether to raise taxes). Approaches to policy analysis in a state like Arizona, which historically has had a low commitment to government services, understandably differ from those in a state like New York, which has a relatively strong history of support for such services. SPP groups all pursue certain common modes of analysis: Each organization, for example, conducts research on whether tax projections in its state will fully cover anticipated spending obligations. But no group is expected to pursue an approach that isn’t appropriate to its state’s political environment.

Expanding a Network

Since its founding, SPP has continued to grow both in the number of states that it covers and in the extent of its influence. In part, that growth reflects an increasing awareness of the importance of state fiscal affairs. The rightward turn in US politics has expanded the canvas of partisan activity and given state fiscal policies a more prominent place on the public agenda. That development, in turn, has made the fiscal health of states an increasingly salient issue among foundation officials.

Contributing to the growth of SPP has been its flexible approach to welcoming new funders. Foundations based in Georgia, New Hampshire, and Nebraska, for example, joined the collaboration in order to promote the public welfare in those states. The Sandler Foundation, meanwhile, joined the collaboration not to support work in a particular state but to strengthen the network as a whole. And another funder, the Stoneman Family Foundation, decided that it wanted to focus on state tax policy as a way to confront income inequality.

To support its mission and to enable its expansion, SPP continues to draw on the expertise of CBPP staff members. As the issues that SPP groups must address have multiplied and become more complex, CBPP has expanded its staff in order to offer guidance not just on policy matters but also on coalition building, strategic communication, and fundraising. Another development that reflects the growth of the network is the creation of a steering committee that consists of SPP state-level directors. That committee, which has seen its role expand over the past decade, gives state groups an important voice in an initiative otherwise dominated by funders and CBPP staff members.

An emphasis on teaching and learning has long been a hallmark of SPP. The partnership sponsors an annual conference where state-level directors meet with people from the National Employment Law Center, the Economic Policy Institute, and other organizations that focus on policies that affect low-income people. SPP also supports an online community in which people throughout the network can exchange ideas and information.

Staff members at CBPP contribute to the SPP learning process as well—by reviewing drafts of partners’ materials, for example, and by developing model analyses that state-level groups can adapt for their own use. In addition, CBPP has helped SPP groups develop strategies to cope with several important policy developments: welfare reform legislation, expansion of the federal EITC, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, the Affordable Care Act and the associated expansion of Medicaid, economic recessions (which invariably ravage state revenues), and efforts by some legislators to limit the ability of states to raise revenue.

Today, in state after state, SPP groups provide analyses of fiscal conditions with the goal of supporting policies that will increase revenue for essential services while protecting current programs—especially those that help low-income citizens—from ruinous spending cuts.

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