Creating State Think Tanks

  • Public-Policy Reform
  • 1986

Thomas Roe, founder of the construction-supply firm Builder Marts, was an active public-policy donor until his death in 2000. When he expressed an interest in the “New Federalism” proposed by Ronald Reagan, which would allow states to solve their own problems as an alternative to standardized programs from Washington, Reagan challenged him to “do something about it.” Roe decided that supporting market-oriented think tanks in every state would help. In 1986 he founded the South Carolina Policy Council in his native place.

Simultaneously, activists favoring decentralized and limited government started similar policy centers in other states—like the Independence Institute in Colorado, and the Mackinac Center in Michigan. With Roe’s encouragement and financial support these organizations began to collaborate and learn from each other. In 1992, they organized the State Policy Network, a consortium of free-market think tanks focused on improving public policy in state capitals rather than via federal legislation in D.C.

Roe served as SPN’s founding chairman and its major financial backer. At its launch, SPN had a dozen think tanks as members; by 2014 it numbered 64 think tanks representing all 50 states, with combined budgets exceeding $80 million. In addition to the traditional think-tank work of policy analysis, they are increasingly becoming involved in new ventures like nonprofit journalism and public-interest litigation.