As one of America’s oldest think tanks, the Yankee Institute fills a key role in researching and analyzing Connecticut’s economy.
Yankee Institute for Public Policy
800 Connecticut Blvd, Suite 302
East Hartford, CT 06108
Telephone Number: (860) 282-0722
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The Modern Connecticut Yankee
By Professor Gerald Gunderson
The Yankee Institute is one of America’s oldest state think tanks. Bernard Zimmern, a French entrepreneur who had set up shop in Norwalk to market his improved compressor technology, founded it in 1984. Bernard was a strong believer in entrepreneurship and free markets so he had been frustrated by the lack of organizations to encourage such interests in France. He was delighted to learn that America, unlike France, allowed such nonprofit organizations as the Heritage Foundation. So he established the forerunner of Yankee, an American 501(c)(3) organization based in Connecticut, intended to act as a missionary for private enterprise back to France. Initially Yankee went by a French acronym, PROBE, but soon two of its board members, Richard Sweetser, an American engineer who was Bernard’s marketing manager, and Gerald Gunderson, a professor at Trinity College, added a division within PROBE to address the obvious need for better public policy in Connecticut. That division was promptly named The Yankee Institute for Public Policy Studies. Bernard funded Yankee’s efforts for several years and continues to be a strong spokesman for free markets in France. Several of his recent books promoting entrepreneurship and free markets are found in the French section of Amazon.com.
Yankee achieved its first widespread visibility in 1988 when it organized a major conference at Trinity College exploring parental choice as a solution to the poor performance of public schools. The event brought together such national experts as John Chubb, Robert Woodson, and Chester Finn who have continued to be well known for their scholarship on schools and neighborhoods. The proceedings of the conference were published in a book, Parental Choice: The Best Solution for the Education of Our Children, that circulated in Connecticut and among free market think tanks for several years. The conference marked two important dimensions that have become characteristic of Yankee, being identified with the cause of school choice and using Trinity College as its base for lectures, conferences, and planning meetings. Since the mid-1990s, Yankee has rented space from the college for its offices, giving it working access to the numerous undergraduates who have served us so well as interns. It also provided a presence in Hartford where most of the decisions for state public are shaped.
In 1991, Yankee achieved de facto certification in the central function that a think tank is intended to perform, providing quality analysis about public policies. The state income tax was being debated. Common sense suggested that the tax would increase the size of state government at the cost of the state economy and its citizens. Yankee’s study, “A Connecticut Assessment of State Income Taxation: Fueling the Government, Stalling the Economy” by Thomas Dye, a professor of political science at Florida State University, used quantative, cross-state evidence to demonstrate the huge magnitude of the prospective costs. The study was cited in the legislative debates as well as around the State that year. Alas, the income tax approved. Now, 15 years later, Yankee’s prediction has proved correct. There is much more state spending without any perceptible improvement in state services. Yankee continues to hold the high ground in providing quality evaluations of the choices facing Connecticut. In contrast, those favoring more spending and regulation seldom offer anything like equivalent analytic justification for their proposals. In the early ’90s, some state union groups attempted to get a counter think tank going but it soon dissolved.
In 1991, Richard Sweetser, executive director of Yankee, moved to Virginia to work for the American Gas Association. Larry Cohen, already more than busy as a communications consultant and college teacher, agreed to assume the role. Larry served from 1991 to 1999. Like Rich Sweetser he served without pay. He is an outstanding example of numerous volunteers who have served Yankee out of their hope for a free and prosperous State.
Larry, the communications expert, quickly became known as the witty, outspoken voice of Yankee. He took the message of fewer taxes and regulations to community gatherings and business conventions across the State. His compensation was often the membership list of the respective organization, soon to be incorporated into Yankee’s mailings. In one sense Larry became too successful and well known. The Hartford Courant hired him away as the obvious conservative counterweight to their generally liberal staff.
The chairman of the Yankee Board, Lee Hanley of Greenwich, kept Yankee on course in Larry Cohen’s absence, and provided the resources that paved the way for the next big step. His most important move was hiring the current President of Yankee, Lewis Andrews. Lew headed the Children’s Educational Opportunity Foundation of Connecticut, which gives scholarships to poor students to attend private schools, and had understandably been closely aligned with Yankee’s efforts toward school choice. Lew went right to work building the modern Yankee, a much larger think tank with correspondingly larger influence on public choices. The modern Yankee has more resources because it has won support from more citizens in the state as well as from major foundations that have evaluated its programs and often found them among the most effective developed by state thinks tanks.
Lew was the first leader of Yankee to be given a salary so he could devote his full time — really time and a half — to developing programs and ideas. He built the staff to keep on top of events and provide timely analysis. D. Dowd Muska, with experience in both national and state policy groups, took over full-time in fiscal matters. And Mary Crean, with extensive experience most recently at the Village for Children, took over communications and development.
In 2008-2009, Yankee underwent a period of significant change as Muska, Crean, and Andrews left the organization to pursue other interests. Fergus Cullen was hired to be the Institute’s Executive Director and Heath W. Fahle came on as Policy Director and renewed the Institute’s focus on fiscal policy issues affecting the state just as the worst impacts of the economic recession were being felt on the state budget.
The year 2010 has been one of significant growth for Yankee. In February, YI launched CTSunlight.org, a site dedicated to improving transparency in Connecticut’s state and local budgets. In July 2010, with the addition of investigative reporter Zachary Janowski, Yankee added an investigative reporting/news element to its portfolio. Zach’s work can be found at RaisingHale.com.
In addition to these projects, Yankee is working to grow its membership by acting as host to regular events that bring supporters together. Operations Director Jessica Buchanan has overseen events with keynote speakers such as Wall Street Journal editor John Fund, the American Enterprise Institute’s Arthur Brooks, and author Jeff Benedict.
Yankee is likely to add more experts in the near future because their potential value to the State is so large. Connecticut state and local governments spend tens of billions each year — often badly. Even without the tutoring of Yankee, most citizens recognize that these resources could be used more effectively. Increasingly, Yankee is becoming recognized for providing the ideas and techniques to implement those improvements.
The Yankee Institute for Public Policy, Inc. is a nonpartisan educational and research organization founded more than two decades ago. Today, the Yankee Institute’s mission is to “promote economic opportunity through lower taxes and new ideas for better government in Connecticut.” The Yankee Institute for Public Policy, Inc. is classified by the IRS as a 501 (c) (3) public charity. Contributions are deductible to the extent allowed by law.