Fort Worth’s Rollins expands Texas policy shop into Washington

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A conservative Texas think tank that spent much of the last decade fighting the White House over states’ rights is shifting gears to go on offense in GOP-controlled Washington.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation, which has more than 75 employees in Texas, will open a new D.C. office in January. Its leaders plan to increase its D.C. staff from five to as many as 15 employees in 2018, to seek rollbacks and changes to environmental and health care issues, and work on criminal justice reform.

TPPF’s president and CEO, Fort Worth resident Brooke Rollins, says limited-government advocates have an ally in President Trump – who campaigned on taking power back from Washington – and they’re gearing up to drive policy back the other direction.

“This White House represents the opportunity to completely reinvigorate the idea that the states should be running themselves,” Rollins said in a Star-Telegram interview at the conservative Heritage Foundation in D.C. last month.

“There’s an opportunity here for those of us who believe that government closest to the people serves the people best… to completely change the way people think about government, and get the whole idea of self-governance back to center stage,” she added.

A powerful lobbying influence in Austin, TPPF opened a state’s rights division in Texas in 2010 to fight the Obama Administration’s implementation of the Affordable Care Act, and later the consideration of the Clean Power Plan. In both cases, it argued the White House had usurped Texas’s power to set its own policies.

TPPF’s Washington goals include rolling back regulations created by the Obama administration, such as the Environmental Protection Agency’s endangerment rule, which mandates that greenhouse gasses be regulated under the Clean Air Act. That 2009 finding laid the groundwork for a of host climate regulations that conservatives have railed against since.

It also plans to continue work on health care, as Republicans revisit plans to repeal and replace Obamacare in 2018.

“We should be in control of our Medicaid and health care, we should be in control of education, and, for the most part, of our environmental regulations,” said Rollins. “This is our time as a state… to stand up and say, ‘give it back.’”

In Texas, where Republicans control every statewide office and both chambers in Austin, Democrats are wary of sending power back to the states.

Other organizations fought a bruising fight with TPPF over labor unions in Texas, and accuse the group of kowtowing to the interests of its corporate sponsors.

“Given the fact that so many state capitols are controlled by folks who have a very pro-corporate view of governing, to throw open the governing process to that without federal oversight is concerning,” said Texas AFL-CIO President Rick Levy.

Under Rollins, who served as former Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s policy director and joined TPPF 15 years ago, the organization has grown from a three-person education and tort reform shop to a top Texas policy influencer with experts on nearly every major issue in the state.

It has also expanded its fundraising, from a single major donor, school voucher advocate James Leininger, to a more than $10 million organization in 2015, with corporate donors including Chevron and ExxonMobil.

Among state-based think tanks, TPPF is considered a giant.

It has more than 10 employees based in other states, helping coordinate states’ right efforts across the country. Most notably, during Obamacare’s implementation, TPPF helped organize and lead 21 states in rejecting the law’s Medicaid expansion.

Its newest venture has already drawn some pushback in Washington, where Democrats are also out of power, but have more leverage than their Austin counterparts. Major legislation in the Senate needs 60 votes to break a filibuster, and Republicans in Washington only control 52 seats – soon to be 51 after Sen.-elect Doug Jones, D-Ala., is sworn in.

Senate Democrats on the Environment and Public Works Committee this month stalled the confirmation of former TPPF fellow, Kathleen Harnett White, in her nomination to chair the White House's Council on Environmental Quality, citing comments she’d made rejecting climate science.

Sen. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, called White, who ran TPPF’s Armstrong Center for Energy & the Environment, a “fringe voice that denies science and economics and reality.”

The Trump administration will have to re-nominate White, or choose another candidate for the job in 2018.

In other places in GOP-controlled Washington, however, TPPF’s views have gotten a different reception.

Rollins serves on Trump’s economic advisory committee, and said she and her organization are working closely the White House’s Office of American Innovation. That office, run by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, says its goal is to apply private sector solutions to the nation’s problems.

“They’re business oriented people and they want results fast,” Rollins said of Office of American Innovation. “They see an organization like ours… and we’ve been able to implement that in Texas, and they want to understand how to do that here.”

Rollins said they’ve been able to collaborate with other advocacy organizations on criminal justice reform – an issue she championed and helped add to TPPF’s policy docket in Texas.

In an unusual partnership with the American Civil Liberties Union, Rollins said the group’s work on a Right on Crime initiative has helped shutter Texas prisons, keep nonviolent offenders out of jail and help inmates transition into jobs after their release.

Among the new hires in D.C., TPPF this month added another criminal justice expert to help with that initiative.

TPPF Chair Wendy Gramm, wife of former Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, praised Rollins’s ability to build relationships across the political spectrum, including that partnership. Now, she said, Rollins has given the organization a line to the White House.

“In the old days, did we ever think this was going to be a national [organization]? No,” said Gramm. “Everybody knows Brooke, and everybody loves Brooke. It’s [her] talent that grew it and made it the organization it is now.”

Andrea Drusch: 202-383-6056, @AndreaDrusch