I think politicians must have hated history classes – or at least hope that voters did – because so often it seems that they bank on people not remembering what happened in the past.
So it seems with our current election battle in Wisconsin where incumbent Scott Walker is by inference and association blaming his challenger, Democrat Mary Burke, for the state budget deficit he inherited from Jim Doyle, for whom Burke worked as secretary of the Department of Commerce.
Walker's ads are correct – he did inherit a budget deficit from Doyle. But he left out that Doyle inherited a huge budget defecit from his predecessor, Acting Gov. Scott McCallum, a Republican, who in term was saddled with the shortfall left behind when his predecesor, Tommy Thompson, another Republican, fled Madison in 2001 to join President George W. Bush's cabinet.
Here's more truth serum – Thompson actually took office with a small budget surplus left behind by Gov. Tony Earl who unfortunately inherited a $500 million budget deficit left by the late Gov. Lee Sherman Dreyfus, my friend and mentor. That's an important piece of history.
Times were much better in 1978 when Dreyfus ran against Acting Gov. Marty Schreiber who racked up a huge budget surplus – so much so that Lee used it as signature campaign issue, vowing to give the cookie jar back to the taxpayers (remember the $40 checks we got after Lee took office?). Marty argued that some of the surplus should be retained as a “rainy day fund” for when times get tough. How prophetic he was – but wisdom seldom wins political arguments.
This is where it becomes even more interesting. When Tony Earl became governor in 1983 he addressed the shortfall by a politically risky move – a temporary income tax surcharge that was ended ahead of schedule when times got better. This happened without the hoopla and costly battles that Walker brought on but it was costly for Tony – he was a one-term governor labeled by Tommy as “Tony the taxer” in the 1986 election. Since then no governor or candidate for that office has ever risked being so candid with Wisconsin voters.
As for Walker's handling of the deficit, it wasn't rocket science. In essence, his plan was based on cutting employee salaries. Setting aside the allegations of union busting, Walker's strategy amounted to a significant pay cut for state workers. No magic there – especially since the law requires a balanced budget.
What about Mary Burke? No matter how you slice and dice it, the next governor will have financial mending to do. If anything, Marty Schreiber has the right idea – the state needs a “rainy day fund” – and so was Lee Drefyus – it has to be protected from politicians raiding it for pet projects. Burke's plans aren't as clearly defined but maybe she is correct that the focus needs to be on growing the state's economy with better paying jobs which, in turn, will produce the income and sales tax revenue needed to fund the state's budget.
Finally, Republicans don't have exclusive rights to a lapse of truth in political advertising. Marty's predecessor, the late Pat Lucey, once delivered what he billed as a “no tax increase budget.” In reality, he balanced his budget with a slew of new or increased user fees including technical college tuition.
My two cents: any plan to improve Wisconsin's economy must recognize the importance of an educated workforce as a key to a healthy and competitive economy. For a long time a high school diploma alone doesn't cut it in today's world market. I'd suggest considering a plan where the state would pick up most of the tab for the first two years of technical college – perhaps as a loan that would be forgiven upon graduation. A similar offering could be made for students attending the University of Wisconsin system – either do your first two years at a technical college or get that amount credited toward a UW degree. Want to help Wisconsin businesses? How about tax credits for hiring resident graduates of Wisconsin's technical colleges or the UW system?
Let the debate begin.
More on the budget deficit from a 2002 report by the conservative WPRI think-tank: http://www.wpri.org/WIInterest/Mayers11.3.pdf