By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog
Updated 8 a.m. Thursday
LINCOLN – Renee Fry of the OpenSky Policy Institute had just testified in support of a bill that would require the state to annually quantify and report the amount of money it spends — or amount of taxes it foregoes —in business incentives, when Sen. Bill Kintner began asking questions.
“What’s the purpose of your organization?” he asked.
OpenSky has been around since September 2011, she told him, and last year began getting involved in policy debates at the Legislature.
“Our purpose is to look at budget and tax policy and be a resource for data,” she said.
The Platte Institute for Economic Research supports the free market, Kintner said, and often OpenSky is “on the other side” of debates.
So what’s OpenSky’s philosophy? he asked.
“I don’t see us as a counterpart to them,” she said. “We want to look at how tax and budget policies impact Nebraskans.”
“Where do you get your funding?” Kintner asked. Family organizations and more than 50 people across the state, Fry replied.
The OpenSky Policy Institute is a new kid on the block in a Legislature, offering a new voice, particularly on tax policy, during the past two legislative sessions. But what is OpenSky, and who’s funding it? Fry said the goal of OpenSky is to provide information and be a resource to improve opportunities for all Nebraskans, with a focus on how budget and tax policies impact the average Nebraskan.
Fry said she’s frequently asked whether OpenSky is the “alternative to the Platte Institute.” The Platte Institute is a nonprofit, free-market think tank in Omaha.
“I say, ‘No, we just have a very different business model,’ ” she said. “We’re very data-focused.”
Fry was hired as executive director in 2011 after working for former speakers Doug Kristensen and Kermit Brashear and Sen. Joel Johnson. She also started the government relations office at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
Fry said OpenSky was born out of a desire for more information about tax and budget policy by several advocacy groups – including the Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons. Several years ago, a proposal for a policy institute was put together, and John Bartel of the University of Nebraska-Omaha then did a feasibility study. He recommended the institute be formed, but recommended it be moderate. Why?
“For credibility,” Fry said. “So many organizations already have a particular bent or bias.”
Lincoln nursery owner Dick Campbell was asked to be one of the first board members and serves as OpenSky’s treasurer. Campbell said OpenSky started with a small group in Omaha, including Kristin Williams of the Sherwood Foundation, which “promotes equity through social justice initiatives.”
Campbell said OpenSky is composed of Republicans, Democrats and Independents who came together “to put accurate research in the hands of the legislators because there’s so much turnover now” with term limits. Campbell — who is married to Sen. Kathy Campbell, a Republican — said he’s a registered Republican but votes for the candidate, not the party.
“A lot of the information that had been coming out before, was slanting the way someone wanted it to look,” Campbell said, referring to the Platte Institute. “Our goal is not to be a Platte Institute … not to decide what our position is and craft things to support that.”
Jim Vokal, executive director of the Platte Institute, said his group’s research is verified, accurate and done by professionals and economists nationwide. The Platte’s mission is to provide research and policy alternatives to improve the quality of life for Nebraskans.
“We’re very conscientious about substantiating research and evidence,” he said. “We understand that people are going to fire back with these unsubstantiated accusations because we’re the leader in Nebraska. We’re the leading think tank in Nebraska and have been for some time.”
OpenSky’s goal is to be a neutral, middle-of-the-road organization that finds accurate data, Campbell said. Less than two years in, OpenSky is already fielding requests to analyze issues, he said.
The institute reported just more than $100,000 in assets to the IRS at the end of 2011, and now has three employees and a budget of about $250,000, Campbell said, with “different foundations that are now coming to the table” with grants, including the Woods Charitable Fund, which gives grants to tax-exempt organizations for human services, civic and community efforts, education, arts and culture. In addition, OpenSky has about 60 individual donors Fry declined to name, saying OpenSky hadn’t asked whether they wished to remain anonymous.
Its board of directors includes Campbell, Williams, Lincoln Realtor Mary Bills-Strand, Omaha philanthropist Howard Buffett, Chuck Karpf of Mitchell, Nebraska Legal Services director Doug German of Eustis and former Republican Sen. Joel Johnson, a retired surgeon from Kearney.
Howard Buffett, grandson of Warren Buffett, heads up the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, which works on “food security” in vulnerable populations. He has previously worked for the U.S. Department of Defense, White House Domestic Policy Council, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the United Nations.
Buffett contributes but isn’t a major donor, Campbell said. Fry said Buffett has provided “a little personal funding” to OpenSky, but has been busy temporarily running his father’s foundation in Illinois.
Campbell said last year OpenSky didn’t plan to get involved during the 2012 legislative session, until Gov. Dave Heineman proposed cutting the income tax and repealing the inheritance tax. “He was proposing that it was a tax reduction for the middle class, but it didn’t help the middle class,” Campbell said. “If you mess with the state tax structure, you’ve got to see how that affects education… .”
OpenSky was among several groups that opposed the governor’s bill, including Nebraska Appleseed, Voices for Children and the Nebraska State Education Association – which the governor called “liberal interest groups.” Heineman ultimately ended up paring down his proposal from $327 million to $97 million in income tax cuts for low earners – a plan OpenSky said the state still couldn’t afford.
This session, OpenSky has testified on 11 bills, including the governor’s proposal to scrap the income tax. OpenSky got a lot of press when it estimated the lower 80 percent of Nebraska wage earners’ taxes would go up and the upper 20 percent’s would go down, under the plan.
OpenSky definitely has a slant when it comes to taxation, Vokal said – they want to protect tax dollars and oppose tax decreases.
“We certainly are on a different side of that equation,” Vokal said.
But he welcomes OpenSky, saying, “The more voices in public policy the better.”
Contact Deena Winter at [email protected].