When it comes to issuing policy advice, lawmakers in Columbus have learned to expect a strongly pro-labor stance from Policy Matters Ohio.
The Cleveland-based think tank didn't disappoint in its Dec. 30 statewide news conference in which it issued a sharply worded statement in support of public sector collective bargaining, a challenge to what Ohio's labor and progressive community sees as an anti-union agenda from the state's new governor, John Kasich.
Founded in 2000, Policy Matters Ohio is one of the heavy hitters in policy advocacy in Columbus, and it is prolific in its release of policy positions.
The think tank doesn't advertise itself as a spokesman for organized labor. In fact, its Web site states its mission is "to broaden the debate about economic policy in Ohio."
But, as Policy Matters Ohio discloses in its position, it receives 17 percent of its funding from unions. It has a strong organized labor influence in its board of directors. Of 13 board members, three represent labor organizations. Among them are Seth Rosen, vice president of Communication Workers of America, District 4, and Harriet Applegate, executive secretary, North Shore Federation of Labor.
Amy Hanauer, the executive director of Policy Matters Ohio, said her organization has a perspective of supporting middle-class wages for working people but makes its points through careful data analysis.
"If that's a bias, then that's where we come from," she said. "We work closely with those who represent working people in the state of Ohio, and working people ought to be able to make a decent living in the state of Ohio."
The Dec. 30 news conference was called after a series of news reports from then-Governor-elect Kasich on his intent to do away with binding arbitration for police and fire unions, abolish other public employees' right to strike, and get rid of the state's prevailing wage laws.
Wendy Patton, a senior associate for Policy Matters Ohio, told reporters that the economic health of a state does not ride on whether that state permits public employees to unionize.
"The right of public workers to bargain collectively is not the cause of the budget shortfalls, and eliminating that right to collective bargaining has not fixed the problem in states that have tried it," Ms. Patton said.
She cited a study of state deficits that showed no correlation between collective-bargaining laws and budget deficits.
The analysis found that the nine states that forbid collective bargaining for public employees had an average budget shortfall of 16.5 percent in the current fiscal year, while the 14 states and the District of Columbia that allow collective bargaining for all public employees faced an average budget shortfall of 16.2 percent — barely a difference. (Ohio's budget shortfall for 2011 was put at 11 percent.)
Recently, the conservative Buckeye Institute for Public Policy Solutions offered an alternative opinion on the subject.
Matt Mayer, president of the Buckeye Institute, said there can be many reasons why a state has a budget shortfall in 2011 but said a problem with Ohio's budget is that public employees are better compensated than the state can support.
He said higher public-sector wages do correlate with whether a state has collective bargaining.
According to U.S. Department of Labor data for 2009, the average wage in collective bargaining states was $51,064 for state workers and $41,457 for local government workers, while the average wage in states without collective bargaining was $46,025 for state workers and $32,560 for local workers, Mr. Mayer said.
"Collective bargaining absolutely is part of why Ohio has a deficit because it's driven the cost of compensation packages beyond inflation to a point where we can't afford them," Mr. Mayer said. "Government workers in Ohio, they're paid too much and we've got to realign those to private sector pay in Ohio."
A key issue
The dispute over the cost of public employees in Ohio will be at the heart of policy making as the governor and lawmakers grapple with a threatened $8 billion to $10 billion deficit for the next two-year budget.
Both Policy Matters and the Buckeye Institute are recognized players in public debates over laws relating to taxes and state and local employment.
Policy Matters focuses on the economy, especially the labor section, and tends to favor a stronger public sector.
Ms. Hanauer said the public sector is what protects the economic security of the American middle class, but those institutions are being threatened. She cited the public school system, Social Security, the minimum wage, and the ability to join a union.
"We're hacking away at the institutions that established the middle class," Ms. Hanauer said.
But Mr. Mayer of the Buckeye Institute said Ohio's public sector has grown "excessively."
He said the state's private sector grew by only 113,500 jobs from 1990 through 2010, while the ranks of state and local government workers increased by a net of 62,900 jobs — in other words, one additional worker on the taxpayer tab for every 1.8 new workers generating tax revenue in the private sector.
"I agree there are certain vital services government provides, but to have a vibrant government sector you must first have a vibrant private sector to fund those services, and Ohio hasn't had that vibrant private sector in decades," Mr. Mayer said.
The Buckeye Institute says it is a critic of government spending and increased taxation to fund that spending, focusing its research and public pronouncements on "economic freedom and competitiveness," "promoting job creation and entrepreneurship," and "strengthening government transparency and accountability."
The Buckeye Institute's board has a conservative, academic, and corporate flavor — but no union representation. Of the six members of the board, one is a lawyer consulting for a human resources corporation in Columbus, one is the executive director of the conservative Peters Foundation, two are current or former business executives, and two are university professors.
Sources of support
Both organizations rely on foundation grants, but only one — Policy Matters Ohio — details its revenue sources.
Policy Matters Ohio's Form 990 disclosure to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service for 2009 reports total contributions last year of $694,979 and expenses of $673,043.
Buckeye Institute's Form 990 for 2009 discloses support of $878,745 and expenses of $665,685.
Policy Matters Ohio's 990 discloses its contributors, showing that 87 percent comes from foundations and 13 percent from unions. The money from unions includes $113,000 from unions that represent public employees in Ohio.
"We're happy and proud to say who funds us," Ms. Han- auer said. "If the Buckeye Institute doesn't want to reveal who their funders are, I find that incredibly secretive and I wonder what they're trying to hide."
Mr. Mayer said just under 60 percent of funding comes from conservative foundations as grants.
He said his organization is required to disclose its contributors to the IRS but not to the public.
"Our funders we do not disclose unless they specifically tell us they want to be disclosed. We take on the hot-button issues that take on some pretty aggressive groups," Mr. Mayer said. "It's important to protect the privacy of our donors."
The only exception is a three-year, $50,000-a-year donation from the Diehl Family Foundation in Defiance to the Buckeye Institute to underwrite an educational program for 25 college students. The foundation is taking applications for the first class to begin in March.
In the world of policy making in Columbus, both groups get listened to — along with a host of other think tanks, political party organs, and special-interest groups.
"I like to read them all," said state Rep. Randy Gardner (R., Bowling Green). He said the big-government tilt of Policy Matters Ohio and the lean-government perspective of Buckeye Institute are well known.
"Almost any information you get usually has a point of view. Regardless of what you're reading, it's important to know the starting point," Mr. Gardner said. "What I generally try to do on a publication is read it, take that information, do additional research, and verify accuracy."
He said that Policy Matters Ohio may have found more receptive listeners in the Democratic administration of Gov. Ted Strickland than it will have with Republican Governor Kasich.
Likewise, he expects the Buckeye Institute to gain a higher profile as a more conservative administration tries to enact its programs.
Mr. Strickland has talked about establishing another progressive think tank to compete with the Buckeye Institute.
Joe Rugola, president of the Ohio AFL-CIO, which represents state government unions, said he has talked to the Strickland camp about possibly setting up a new activist organization, but he said he's happy with the research function performed by Policy Matters Ohio for state union interests.
"We're huge supporters and admirers. I'm not ashamed to say my own home union [Ohio Association of Public School Employees] has been for many, many years a consistent financial supporter of Policy Matters Ohio. We depend on them for good, solid, fact-based research," Mr. Rugola said.
Contract Tom Troy at: email@example.com or 419-724-6058.