Stating the Case for Freedom

Published March 1, 2018

More than a decade ago, The Heartland Institute was fighting hard on a key issue of freedom in multiple states. Looking for assistance, Heartland’s president at the time, Joseph Bast, approached the leader of one of the most prominent conservative think tanks in Washington, DC. Would they help? After all, their budget, number of staff, number of media contacts, and other resources dwarfed those of Heartland.

Good news: The ally agreed it was a very important issue. Bad news: He declined to help.

Why would a prominent think tank that promotes the principles of freedom and liberty not join such an important effort? The reason was short and simple: We don’t work in the states, he said. That’s not our focus. One of the largest free-market think tanks in the United States, and they stay out of an important battle because they don’t focus on the states?

Despite the lack of help, Heartland didn’t abandon the effort. The ally didn’t change his mind and help, but neither did he discourage or oppose our efforts. Instead, we plowed ahead on our own, working closely with allies on the ground, refusing to cede the turf of even one state to the Left.

Heartland Is Unique

Unfortunately, this is not an unusual story in the freedom movement. It is one that has played out in state after state, year after year. Heartland is on the ground in multiple states, fighting for school choice, health care freedom, lower taxes, less spending, and most recently, energy freedom. We work with state and local think tanks, advocacy groups, libertarian and conservative allies, and national associations, and usually no other national think tank is likewise engaged.

Instead, the other libertarian-conservative national think tanks focus almost exclusively on Washington, DC and national policies. They are dedicated to national issues, national donors, national profiles, national influence, and national media. They have their offices in Washington. Most of their staff work inside the Beltway. Their families and closest friends are in DC. And so naturally, what happens in Washington, DC becomes their primary emphasis.

Most of the leaders of national think tanks share Heartland’s enthusiastic support for the concept of federalism. We mutually support a constitutional preference for a smaller, less powerful national government. We recognize Washington has stolen power and authority away from state and local governments, not to mention the nation’s citizens. To the extent that government is necessary, we share Jefferson’s observation: “Government that governs closest to the people governs best.”

Yet the fact remains: The Heartland Institute is unique in actually working out the principles of federalism, constitutionalism, small government, and freedom in state legislatures all across our nation.

My predecessor as Heartland president, Joe Bast, has always highlighted the fact that Heartland is “the marketing arm of the freedom movement,” and our principal customers are state legislators. This doesn’t mean Heartland is out of touch with national issues. On the contrary, knowledge of state-level concerns provides valuable insights into the effects of national policies and an awareness of when states are better-situated to legislate.

That’s why the White House communicates regularly with us and has promoted multiple articles and policies we’ve developed. Three Heartland staff members were in the Rose Garden last year when President Donald Trump announced he was withdrawing the United States from the Paris Climate Accord. I’m willing to bet a lot of other important think tank folks were not there. Members of Congress—many of whom started out in state legislatures—also regularly call on us for guidance. 

What makes us special is we have that influence and a focus on the states. With your support, we will continue to do that. But recognize this fact: Among national think tanks, there is no one like Heartland in the battle for freedom taking place in every state capitol of America.

The Legislature Is in Session

As I write this, Washington is in the throes of another shutdown meltdown. As they say, this too shall pass. Nonetheless, the federal government is now into its second quarter with no budget resolution in sight for this year—neither the House nor the Senate has even started on next year’s budget—and the minimal spending restraints adopted in 2011 have been abandoned entirely. I’m certainly glad Heartland’s potential for success does not rest solely in the hands of Congress.

But on the bright side—and illustrating the unique value proposition of The Heartland Institute— 41 state legislatures are meeting as I write this. By this summer, 46 state legislatures will have met this year and passed new policies on every issue under the sun, all with significant effects on our liberties.

Much of the important government action in this country takes place at the state level. The official White House website correctly states, “Most Americans have more daily contact with their state and local governments than with the federal government. Police departments, libraries, and schools—not to mention driver’s licenses and parking tickets—usually fall under the oversight of state and local governments.”

And Heartland is there. We are in Idaho promoting innovative Medicaid reforms. We are in Missouri and Nebraska testifying on expanding access to direct primary care physician practices. We are in Wisconsin testifying in favor of Gov. Scott Walker’s comprehensive welfare reforms and work requirements.

In Arizona, Colorado, and many other states, we are fighting to save coal power plants from being closed prematurely because of Obama administration anti-coal regulations. Already in 2018 we have submitted written or oral testimony in seven different states at the request of legislative committees, and we have many more requests to do so in the near future.

Lawmakers have reached out to Heartland on a variety of other hot issues, such as prevailing wage, carbon taxes, school choice, civil asset forfeiture, regulatory reform, dental therapists, and many more. Our team is working hard to educate and advise lawmakers on these issues and others.

This is what we do at Heartland. We work with state policymakers—educating, encouraging, and praising them when they stand for freedom and sometimes excoriating them when they do not. We don’t ignore Washington, as is clear from our success in climate change, health care reform, and energy freedom policies.

But for the other 50, often-forgotten legislative bodies in the United States, Heartland is the only national think tank promoting the cause of Freedom. With your continued generosity, we will be there for years to come, upholding the actual language, intent, and spirit of our Constitution. As America’s only 50+1 free-market think tank, The Heartland Institute stands in freedom’s gap every day of the year.

The Future of Freedom

For a farm kid and former congressman from Kansas, moving to Illinois to lead Heartland was not an easy decision. Being named to continue the legacy of freedom promoted so well by Joe Bast for so long is a challenge. And stepping in to take the reins of a hard-working, well-oiled organization with 40 staff, 250 legislator forum members, and 500 policy advisors—now that is a daunting task.

But that is why I am here: The future of freedom in all 50 states depends on The Heartland Institute. As both a former state legislator and a congressman, I can attest that without the leadership, the expertise, the reputation, the research, and the policy analysis of Heartland, supported by your generosity, we would be much farther away from our goals of liberty and justice in this nation.