Wisconsin State Journal

January 31, 2001

It's the end of an era that spans more than three decades: Tonight's State of the State speech by Tommy Thompson will be one of his last official acts as governor and will close out 34 years of state service that began when a rough- around-the-edges grocer's son from Elroy arrived in Madison as a fiery young legislator. Thompson will say an emotional goodbye to the state -- but it won't necessarily be a farewell.

Thompson is stepping down Thursday to be sworn into office as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services| an agency, he's been accurately telling people on his "victory lap" across Wisconsin, that has a budget bigger than any other country in the world. It's a job that simultaneously intrigues and overwhelms Thompson, but that he'll eventually master, just as he did the office of governor over 14 years.

There will be a lot of talk tonight about Thompson's "legacy," although he might not use that word himself. But there's a simple way to describe what Thompson has done: He has helped to build Wisconsin.

*He has built it in a physical sense by pushing for construction or repair of thousands of miles of roadways and bridges, harbors and other transportation facilities. The University of Wisconsin System has added more buildings in the Thompson era than at any similar period in its history. Many of those UW buildings are directly related to "new economy" endeavors such as biotechnology and life sciences. The Thompson years have seen the addition of two state fish hatcheries, three state parks and thousands of acres of public lands.

One figure sums it up: Since he took office in 1987, the state Building Commission has approved $ 2 billion in state projects.

*He also rebuilt the state's confidence in itself. Thompson came to office at a time when the state was still mired in the aftermath of an economic recession. Worse than the reality of the economic times in the mid-1980s was the attitude that state government, the UW System, business and labor could never work together.

The problem when Thompson took office was too many workers and not enough jobs. Since then, about 700,000 jobs have been created in Wisconsin, and the biggest problem is finding enough people to fill the jobs that are open.

Thompson helped to bring the state out of its self-imposed funk through his relentless cheerleading and his refusal to take "no" for an answer -- whether that answer came from Lee Iacocca, state legislators or out-of-state investors. The guy who was nicknamed "Dr. No" in the Legislature could still say no if it came to vetoing unnecessary state spending, but he was "Mr. Yes" when it came to promoting Wisconsin.

*Thompson built new ways of delivering public services. Welfare reform, after several false starts, was accomplished through "Wisconsin Works," or W-2. BadgerCare has allowed more working poor to get health insurance, and may serve as a model for other states. Thompson, in fact, will encourage President Bush to make BadgerCare a national program.

Although serious cracks are now emerging in how Wisconsin pays for its public schools, the grand compromise of the early 1990s -- local revenue controls in exchange for more guaranteed state money -- seemed right for the times. Perhaps the Legislature and Thompson's successor, Lt. Gov. Scott McCallum, can come up with a better plan.

The Thompson years have not been without disappointments. Wisconsin let the gambling genie out of the bottle and may be unable to ever force it back inside. "I know I would have done some things differently, in retrospect," Thompson said. One idea he wished he had pushed: Using lottery profits to fund scholarships for all high-school graduates instead of pumping it into property tax relief, where the money was scarcely noticed.

There are other unsolved problems: Relations between the state and local governments have deteriorated, and it's not clear whether the Legislature will pay any attention to ideas for reversing that trend. Campaigns today are more expensive and divisive. Wisconsin, like much of the nation, finds its energy independence in jeopardy because it has been unable to meet rising demands for electrical power. Wisconsin's tax burden would have been enormous if not for some of the changes pushed by Thompson and approved by the Legislature, but it's still too high for comfort.

For tonight, however, those problems can wait. Thompson will deliver a speech that will look back on his record-shattering tenure and ahead to Wisconsin's enormous promise. He will also challenge the state's citizens to exceed their own expectations, in a way only Tommy Thompson can do. It's goodbye for now, but maybe not forever.