Is “engaged philanthropy” a backdoor way of injecting special interest money into the political process?
ST. PAUL, MN—It might be the most effective advocacy group you never heard of. Regardless, you have likely paid for enactment of their aggressive green agenda through higher taxes, higher utility bills and a slower commute to work.
Organized under the banner of the RE-AMP Energy Network, a group of well-endowed national foundations has lavished unheard of sums of special interest money on Minnesota green-oriented nonprofits as they relentlessly pursue their agenda. An investigation by the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota (FFM) has revealed a coordinated campaign to influence policy makers, media coverage and public opinion.
“We were sick of losing on this issue. We thought that if we had a better game plan, then we might win more,” said Michael Noble, a key RE-AMP strategist with Fresh Energy, in a Monitor Institute report.
The influx of some $48 million of special interest “engaged philanthropy” funding to Minnesota advocacy groups since 2003 has helped pay the way for implementation of a sweeping green agenda at the state and local level. RE-AMP funding went to groups that had 69 registered lobbyists in St. Paul in 2010, according to records at the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board. This army of advocates makes RE-AMP allies one of the biggest lobbying forces at the capitol on paper.
“The Garfield Foundation wants its grants to contribute to a cleaner environment, a stable climate and a sustainable future but, we know that going it alone won’t get us very far down that path. Our philanthropic dollars are leveraged at least ten-fold by investing in RE-AMP and aligning our dollars with the intelligence emerging from the RE-AMP Network,” said Jennie Curtis, executive director of the Massachusetts Garfield Foundation in the Monitor Institute report.
What has this unprecedented injection of outside special interest money wrought in the North Star state? RE-AMP’s website touts a checklist of ground-breaking legislative victories achieved over the period national foundations have contributed millions of dollars to Minnesota nonprofits.
Killed the proposed Big Stone II coal power plant on the South Dakota border
A “Complete Streets Law” that gives bikes and pedestrians priority status on roads while driving up construction and assessment costs to homeowners
Politically correct natural gas rates that penalize ratepayers who use more than the government’s suggested allotment of energy
Measures to reduce the need for cars while increasing dependence and taxpayer spending on rail transit
Burdensome new building codes and costly energy efficiency requirements
Laid the groundwork for a labyrinth of controversial new power lines for wind energy
“Fresh Energy is proud of its cooperation with other groups and foundations who are also working for an energy system less dependent on fossil fuels, one that’s good for our economy and our environment,” Noble, executive director of Fresh Energy, told FFM in a statement.
FFM has tracked 285 grants totaling $48 million in funding to more than 40 non-profits and local governments since 2003 in an all-out effort to radically rewrite Minnesota environmental policy. Some of the top five non-profit recipients of this investment may be unfamiliar to many Minnesotans, but not to policy makers and state capitol insiders.
Fresh Energy $9,433,500
Minnesota Public Radio $5,100,000
Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy $3,794,235
The fat checks, however, come with strings attached. A review of grants listed online by the Energy Foundation of San Francisco provides a window into how RE-AMP works. The synopsis for each grant clearly illustrates how RE-AMP directs non-profits to comprehensively target legislators, utilities, labor, public opinion, even religious institutions. Examples include:
“Educate opinion leaders and policy makers in Minnesota on the elements of a carbon cap and trade system” (Fresh Energy/$75,000/2009 )
“To accelerate the retirement of coal-fired power plants in Minnesota” (Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy/$150,000/2010)
“To hire labor organizers in the Midwest to educate labor leaders on climate” (Blue Green Alliance Foundation/$350,000/2008)
“To support “Congregations Caring for Creation” to develop a strategic plan for its global warming work with faith communities in Minnesota” (International Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture/$15,000/2007)
RE-AMP’s network and influence extend well inside Minnesota government. Behind the scenes, RE-AMP affiliates have collaborated with state officials to draft regulations and implement new environmental mandates. For example, two key RE-AMP groups were included in a 2009 Minnesota Public Utilities Commission news release and credited with helping construct a controversial “decoupling” natural gas pilot pricing system.
In addition, several former RE-AMP strategists are well-positioned to institutionalize many key goals of the coalition. Paul Aasen, a former executive with the Center for Environmental Advocacy, now runs the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the state’s equivalent of the Environmental Protection Agency. The state’s top energy official, Bill Grant, served as Associate Executive Director of the Izaak Walton League in Minnesota. Grant is responsible for implementing the agenda championed by his former colleagues for the Dayton administration. Most recently Grant’s name has surfaced in the search for a chair for the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission
“Nobody knows Minnesota’s energy policy like Bill Grant,” commented Mike Noble of Fresh Energy, a RE-AMP mainstay.
Besides high profile cabinet level positions, RE-AMP advocates populate influential policy making advisory boards and commissions. Jennifer Munt, president of Transit for Livable Communities, represents District 3 on the Metropolitan Council. David Van Hattum, a program manager with Transit for Livable Communities, and Ethan Fawley, a transportation expert with Fresh Energy, were appointed to the Met Council’s Transportation Advisory Board (TAB).
Several RE-AMP members receive prominent treatment on two Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) web pages for RE-AMP supported initiatives. On the GreenStep Cities website, three RE-AMP members are listed as MPCA partners—the Center for Energy and Environment, Envision Minnesota and Transit for Livable Communities. The expert featured on the MPCA’s “Next Step” energy page is Michael Noble, executive director of Fresh Energy, a group that receives sizable RE-AMP funding in Minnesota. The expert featured on the MPCA’s “Next Step” transportation page is Dave Van Hattum with Transit for Livable Communities, another RE-AMP nonprofit. Among other RE-AMP grant recipients listed on the same website are the Center for Energy and Environment, Envision Minnesota, Green Institute, Great Plains Institute for Sustainable Development, Institute for Local Self Reliance, Izaak Walton League, Minnesota Environmental Partnership and Windustry.
Yet another RE-AMP foundation donor has deep ties to the Dayton administration. Eric Dayton, Governor Dayton’s son, serves on the board of the Rockefeller Family Fund. The New York foundation has provided more than $1.8 million in funding for RE-AMP causes in Minnesota. Alida Messinger, Governor Dayton’s ex-wife and mother of Eric, previously served on the same foundation’s board.
Tarryl Clark, former Assistant Majority Leader of the Minnesota Senate, was named co-chair last year of the BlueGreen Alliance, a Sierra Club affiliated recipient of RE-AMP funding. Clark was assigned to coordinate a nine-state campaign that included Minnesota and their mission was to promote green jobs with labor and environmentalists.
DFL-friendly political action funds have also benefited from still another RE-AMP philanthropist. Over the last two election cycles, the Tides Foundation has contributed $80,000 to WIN Minnesota and $60,000 to The Alliance for a Better Minnesota.
Participating RE-AMP foundations have also invested millions in media training, media relations, blogs and social media. St. Paul-based Fresh Energy coordinates the network’s media center for all eight Midwestern states, leveraging a RE-AMP website called Midwest Energy News to garner positive news stories.
In the past year, the Star Tribune, Minnesota’s largest newspaper, has published nine articles submitted by Midwest Energy News on energy and environmental issues in the paper’s business news section and three blog posts. The articles were presented as mainstream news stories with no explanation of Midwest Energy News’ connection to RE-AMP or Fresh Energy in the first eight articles. The last Midwest Energy News story published in the Star Tribuneincluded a disclaimer.
While proclaiming editorial independence from both Fresh Energy and RE-AMP, Midwest Energy News reliably focuses on the same agenda. For example, Midwest Energy Newspicked up reports that the Midwestern Governor’s Association had scuttled a regional cap-and-trade pact last year, a pet project that RE-AMP foundations spent $2.8 million to support and promote. The editor of Midwest Energy News, however, soon replaced his original post with an article headlined “Midwest cap and trade: Not dead, just sleeping.” While acknowledging the first post was mostly correct, the author, Ken Paulman, wrote that it was removed due to “a critical error.” Paulman included an apology for adding “to the confusion without thoroughly vetting the previously published information.”
Another prominent Minnesota media outlet, Minnesota Public Radio (MPR), accepted a $3 million grant in 2008 for its American Public Media unit to cover “sustainability issues.” The grant was issued by the Kendeda Fund, a RE-AMP participating foundation. MPR also received $2.1 million from Kendeda in 2005 for coverage of sustainability issues. The American Public Media programs supported by the Kendeda funding are heard statewide on Minnesota Public Radio stations.
“Kendeda Fund supports “Global Sustainability News Coverage and Programming” at American Public Media’s Marketplace, a suite of public radio business programs produced in Los Angeles,” said Bill Gray, MPR corporate spokesman. “Specific to your interest, this support to Marketplace has no impact on Minnesota environmental and energy policy, nor does it have any impact on Minnesota Public Radio or its programming.”
A glowing MPR feature revealed the impact of RE-AMP funding in generating positive news coverage. “Nothing is more important to the future of the economy and, ultimately, to our survival than awareness of how our actions affect global sustainability,” says JJ Yore, executive producer of American Public Media’s Marketplace. It’s a sentiment echoed across several other programs from American Public Media–the production and distribution arm of Minnesota Public Radio.”
The MPR story went on to state the grant “is allowing Marketplace®, Speaking of Faith with Krista Tippett, Weekend America and American RadioWorks to expand their coverage in this area and reframe the topic in interesting and highly relevant ways. So sustainability becomes as much a story about lifestyle, economics, society and religion as one about the environment.”
There appears to be no need for RE-AMP’s nonprofit network to be concerned about another critical sustainability issue—sustainable funding for their recipient network of nonprofit organizations. After investing $48 million, the wealthy RE-AMP foundations that have targeted Minnesota lawmakers, media and public for nearly a decade show no signs of cutting back now.
Part I: National Foundations Bankroll $48 Million Campaign to Rewrite Minnesota Environmental Policy. Read here.
Tips or comments? Contact Tom Steward at 612-354-2192.