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A conservative Nebraska think tank -- the Platte Institute for Economic Research -- has been labeled by two watchdog groups as a so-called “stink tank” that is part of a nationwide network promoting an extreme right-wing agenda.

According to a report by the Center for Media and Democracy and Progress Now, the Platte Institute is aligned with the State Policy Network, or SPN, "an $83 million web of right-wing think tanks " in every state across the country.

"These organizations present themselves as nonpartisan, objective and scholarly," the report said. "But instead of being actual, honest think tanks, all of these organizations are funded by and/or work for groups like the corporate-backed American Legislative Exchange Council, Americans for Prosperity, the Koch brothers and other billionaire conservative and corporate funders.

"SPN and its affiliates push an extreme right-wing agenda that aims to privatize education, block healthcare reform, restrict workers' rights, roll back environmental protections and create a tax system that benefits most those at the very top level of income," the report said.

SPN officials did not respond to a request for comment, but Jim Vokal, executive director of the Platte Institute, dismissed the report.

"Our group and SPN are being attacked based on our philosophy and our success in advancing free-market solutions," he said. "There are people out there that do not support free-market solutions. They want bigger government. And that's what I think this is -- an attempt to attack those who believe in what we believe in."

The Platte Institute was established in 2007 by Omaha businessman Pete Ricketts, the former chief operating officer for Ameritrade who unsuccessfully ran for the U.S. Senate in 2006 and is seeking next year's GOP gubernatorial nomination. He resigned from the institute's board of directors in August, Vokal said.

The Platte Institute identifies itself as "a research and educational organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for all citizens of Nebraska by advancing sensible, well-researched solutions to state and local economic policy issues."

Its website says: "The Platte Institute's scholars study public policy problems and propose solutions that increase economic opportunity for all Nebraskans. We then promote these solutions by publishing studies, briefing papers and other educational materials which help policymakers, the media and the general public gain a better understanding of the issues.

"The Platte Institute is founded on the belief that the freedom and quality of life that Nebraskans deserve is best achieved by promoting free-enterprise, limited government and personal responsibility. Our scholars move beyond the mindset that every problem has a government solution," the website says. "Instead, we propose policy alternatives that respect the rights of the individual and encourage hard work and perseverance."

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The Platte Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization privately funded through contributions made by individuals, businesses and foundations.

The Center for Media and Democracy and Progress Now report notes that the SPN and most of its affiliates do not post their major donors on their websites.

"The identities of the donors we have discovered reveal that SPN is largely funded by global corporations -- such as Reynolds American, Altria, the e-cigarette company NJOY, Microsoft, AT&T, Verizon, Facebook, the for-profit online education company K12 Inc., GlaxoSmithKline, Kraft Foods, Express Scripts, Comcast, Time Warner, and the Koch- and tea party-connected DCI Group lobbying and PR firm -- that stand to benefit from SPN's destructive agenda," the report said, "as well as out-of-state special interests like the billionaire Koch brothers, the Waltons, the Bradley Foundation, the Roe Foundation and the Coors family -- who are underwriting an extreme legislative agenda that undermines the traditional rights of modern Americans."

The report said that while SPN's affiliates are registered as educational nonprofits, "several appear to orchestrate extensive lobbying and political operations to peddle their legislative agenda to state legislators, despite the IRS's regulations on nonprofit political and lobbying activities.

"SPN and many of its affiliates are some of the most active members and largest sponsors of the controversial ALEC, where special interest groups and state politicians vote behind closed doors on 'model' legislation to change Americans' rights, through ALEC's task forces," the report said. "SPN has close ties to, and works with, other national right-wing organizations like the Franklin Center and David Koch's Americans for Prosperity."

Reach Kevin O'Hanlon at 402-473-2682 or kohanlon@journalstar.com.
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