Despite Washington State being one of the most liberal states in the country, it is home to one of the premier free market think tanks in the country. With an excellent staff, the Washington Policy Center has built a solid national reputation by providing creative policy solutions to a broad array of issues. Shift is pleased to sit down with WPC’s President Dann Mead Smith to discuss their successes, their future programs and how people can become more involved.
In Washington State, where the Democrats have had almost continuous control for nearly 4 decades, what do you see as the mission of a free market think tank?
Our mission does not change based on who is in the Governor’s mansion or who controls the legislature. Free markets improve lives and in my experience lawmakers from both sides of the aisle seek to do that—the challenge is in getting them to think about problems and solutions differently. It does, of course, impact how some of our key policy recommendations are received and makes it harder for some to be implemented but we work with all legislators and have had success depending on the issue.
Our mission is to analyze policy proposals across our eight research centers: agriculture, education, environment, government reform (budgets, taxes, transparency), health care, small business, transportation, and worker rights/labor reform, and make free-market policy recommendations that will improve the lives of people across our state. We have a different experience than our think tank friends in Florida and Texas for example, but our impact on key policy issues continues to grow. We recognize that some leaders in our state might not organically turn to a free market think tank, so we actively seek to cultivate relationships and discussions with policymakers, organizations and audiences that might not have heard our perspective before.
You have been with the Policy Center for 19 years. What would you consider to be some of the organization’s biggest success stories?
Even in a tough political environment that is not always receptive to free market ideas, we have had been able to get some of our key policies implemented and stop what our research shows is bad public policy that can negatively impact the citizens of our state.
Charter schools was a key policy victory for us. These schools have given new educational opportunities to thousands of students across our state and they disproportionally serve low-income and minority students which means that these schools completely change their lives for the better.
For the last couple years there have been efforts to introduce an income tax by calling it a “capital gains excise tax.” It was WPC that made the inquires that resulted in the IRS confirming they treat capital gains taxes as income taxes, and it was our Jason Mercier that collected responses from all 50 state revenue departments that showed they too treat capital gains taxes as income taxes. I think Washington might have had its first statewide income tax if it weren’t for our research and marketing efforts. And our idea to ban city income taxes was overwhelmingly passed by voters in Spokane last year and has since been passed by two more cities.
Citizens are finally able to testify remotely rather than having to go to the State Capitol which we have been advocating in favor of for years; and we have worked with Freedom Foundation to educate government employees and the public about the landmark Janus court ruling that affirmed the First Amendment rights of public employees. This project could completely change our state, as many of the bad policy ideas that we work against tends to come from public sector union leaders.
I also think it’s fair to say that WPC’s environmental center has been vital in the debate over the preservation of the Lower Snake River dams. We’ve collected the data that shows the value of the dams and the very limited environmental benefits that would come from their removal. We’ve shown how advocacy groups have cherry-picked data.
The Washington Policy Center attracts many young people and encourages them to participate in the policy process. Your Young Professionals group is very active. What other programs do you run that encourages young people to become involved?
Yes, we have been very pleased with the growth of our both our regular Young Professionals program (for those 22-39 years old) and our college clubs. Both continue to grow and their events have been attended by thousands of students and young professionals across our state with our main concentration in the Puget Sound area, Tri-Cites and our new chapter in Spokane as well as our college clubs at the UW, WSU, Univ of Puget Sound, Gonzaga and Seattle University. We have a dedicated and impressive advisory board that oversees our efforts and outreach to this age demographic.
We also have our Doug and Janet True intern program with two students interning each quarter at our Seattle office. Several of our past interns have had their work published as WPC publications which is always exciting for them and nice for us to showcase.
We have also offered a college scholarship program for female students over the last several years. Our Jennifer Dunn Thomson Scholarship applications are being accepted until April 15th for students and recent undergraduates looking at graduate school and who might benefit and appreciate this opportunity. Our board scholarship committee will have up to $15,000 to award to female college students who embody Jennifer’s values. The committee will divide this pool of money as it sees fit and award multiple scholarships. The award can be used to pay for tuition or to fund an internship on Capitol Hill in DC. WPC will help place the recipient with a member of Congress.
Once the legislative session ends next week, what can we expect from the Washington Policy Center?
We have our annual policy conference coming up on April 14th in Bellevue, the Solutions Summit, which, along with our new Policy Guide for Washington State book, will provide a path forward for our state during this key election year.
In addition, we are embarking on one of our most exciting and ambitious projects in our history, Free Markets Create. As your readers know, support for the ideal of free-markets and capitalism is losing ground with younger generations. We are seeing an increased trend toward socialist thinking – but it is reversible. How can we convince young Americans that free markets offer solutions, not more problems? By introducing them to a fresh, bold and unexpected take on the power of the marketplace.
We will go on offense this year by launching a sustained marketing and digital outreach campaign, potentially reaching 1.5 million of our state’s youngest voters with a unique, powerful message. Our message will generate skepticism of socialism’s ability to deliver on its promises, and it will warn them about the restrictions on individual freedom and opportunity that go hand in hand with socialist models.
We believe our effort will lead young Washingtonians to become more favorable and open toward free-market thinking—and will cause them to question the false promises offered by socialism. Stay tuned for this full launch of our two secret weapons we plan to announce in the coming weeks…
Your Annual Dinners in Bellevue and Spokane are usually sold out and are the highlights of the year. The dinners always attract well-respected national figures to speak. Who have been some of your favorite speakers and who are some of the speakers you personally would like to have but have yet been unable to present?
Thank you, they are a lot of work but have been very well received and we have been honored to have some of our country’s most well thought of and inspirational speakers at our podium on both sides of our state.
Some of my favorite speakers have included Charles Krauthammer (we were lucky to have featured him twice before he passed away in 2018), the combination of Gov. Scott Walker, who just passed his historic right to work law in Wisconsin, and Ben Carson who had just keynoted the National Prayer breakfast and emerged on the national scene, former Czech Republic president Vaclav Klaus, and the pairing of Arthur Brooks and EU Parliament member Daniel Hannan are two of the most inspirational speakers you will ever hear and both brought down the house when they spoke.
As far as speakers we would like to have speak at our Annual Dinner, I think Condoleezza Rice would be a big draw and interesting to hear from. We would have loved to have had President Reagan at our event before he passed away. And not policy related and not they are not ideologically aligned but given my interest in music, it would be fun and entertaining to have Liam or Noel Gallagher from Oasis at our podium, at least to sing the national anthem!
How can people get involved with the Washington Policy Center?
Join with us for as little as $50/year and become a member to ensure that more people that need to see our work do and you will receive our weekly email policy updates, quarterly magazine Viewpoint, discounts for our events that we hold nearly every week across the state – especially our upcoming Solutions Summit policy conference; follow us on social media (Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn) and share our work with your friends; and if you are under 40 years old, join our Young Professionals group and attend their events.
If you would like more information about the Washington Policy Center or you would like to become involved in its excellent programs , please visit its website at https://www.washingtonpolicy.org/