Wisconsin State Journal

December 24, 2000

By Scott Milfred

Already Gov. Tommy Thompson is being mentioned in the same sentence as the icon of Wisconsin politics: Fighting Bob La Follette.

The two men, separated by almost a century, cast long shadows over the state Capitol, arguably influencing politics here more than any other state figures.

One of many differences is that Thompson hasn't had to fight much, particularly during the latter years of his unprecedented 14-year run.

''The history books may well say he's the most dominant governor Wisconsin ever had,'' said Tim Cullen, a former Republican state lawmaker and Cabinet secretary under Thompson. ''He dominated the Legislature. He dominated the debate. He dominated the policy agenda.''

Ed Garvey, the Democrat who lost to Thompson in the 1998 gubernatorial election, couldn't agree more. Thompson has amassed so much influence during his record span in the governor's post that it's time to enact term limits, Garvey said.

''He's been in there so long that every agency of government has been dominated by his intellectual playmates,'' Garvey said. ''And not only that, he's built up the kind of campaign war chest that makes it impossible for him to be challenged.''

Thompson, 59, isn't gone yet. He remains governor at least until President-elect George W. Bush officially nominates him health and human services secretary in Bush's Cabinet. The Associated Press and CNN, citing anonymous sources close to both men, say that will almost certainly happen this week, though two Bush advisers said the deal is not completely closed.

Thompson, vacationing in Mexico with his family for the holidays, would be ''honored'' to serve as HHS secretary, a Republican source told the Wisconsin State Journal last week.

Lt. Gov. Scott McCallum is in line to replace Thompson and fill out the remaining two years of his term. Many people say Thompson is a tough act to follow -- ''kind of like following the Beatles,'' said state Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton.

''He almost starts out in the hole because he follows Tommy, who has had this state on a short leash,'' Erpenbach said.

Thompson, a lifelong Wisconsin resident who grew up in the small Juneau County community of Elroy, likely will be remembered most for his overhaul of the state's welfare system.

Thompson turned welfare from largely an entitlement program into a jobs program. Poor people who agree to work get training, help finding jobs, child care and such things as no-interest loans for transportation costs.

Democratic President Bill Clinton drew heavily from Thompson's Wisconsin model to institute similar changes at the national level.

''Welfare reform is really his signature effort,'' said Don Kettl, a UW-Madison political science professor who has observed Thompson for more than a decade. ''He found a way to cobble together both Republican and Democratic ideas on things like welfare and things people could swallow on both sides.''

Welfare rolls have fallen dramatically, but advocates for the needy say many have been left behind. More people are working and self-sufficient. But demand at shelters and food pantries also is up, critics note.

''We don't understand the real implications yet,'' Kettl said. ''But it was passed by the Clinton administration, which says something about its sweep and its power.''

Thompson pushed for change at significant political risk, Kettl added.

''For anyone to talk, even in the short run, of putting more money into welfare to try to improve it, was a radical idea, especially for a Republican,'' he said.

Thompson also has overseen a strong economy. But credit for that is harder to give.

Jim Pugh, a spokesman for Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, said Thompson ''changed the face'' of the state's business climate.

''You are truly dealing with a historic figure,'' Pugh said. ''Dane County is growing. Wisconsin is a place where people are making money, building bigger houses and investing. It's quite a place.''

Garvey said Thompson was just lucky to be in office when the global economy took off. He also said that many high-wage industrial jobs have been replaced with low-wage service sector jobs.

''Our wages are low and our taxes, because they fall on our working families, are disproportionately high,'' Garvey said.

Indeed, state spending has roughly doubled since Thompson took office in January 1987. For his record on taxes and spending, Thompson gets only a ''C'' grade from the conservative Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.

While acknowledging that Wisconsin is a high tax state, Pugh said Thompson deserves credit for vetoing what would have been the biggest tax increase in state history in 1991, when Democrats controlled both legislative houses.

Thompson also has been able to make some tax cuts while still increasing the size of government because of the good economy.

Todd Berry, executive director of the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, said Thompson deserves at least some credit for the state's economy.

''I don't think you can deny that in the early '80s the perception of the state was quite negative, that it was not a good place to expand and employ people,'' Berry said. ''Certainly what Thompson brought was a change in psychology that business and job growth was something to be welcomed and encouraged.''

Thompson did a good job of restraining spending and cutting taxes during his first term, Berry said. But as the economy heated up, the governor and the Legislature ''got a little sloppy,'' Berry said. ''Whatever money came in was committed.''

State expenditures as a percentage of personal income -- a comparison Berry thinks is more telling than the overall amount of state spending -- trended down during the first part of Thompson's tenure but has trended up in recent years.

''The bottom line is the state's relative position compared to other states is probably fourth in the county'' for high taxes, Berry said. ''That's really what it was in the 1970s and off and on in the 1980s. There hasn't been a dramatic shift.''

Berry said the highlights of Thompson's legacy include welfare reform, greater school funding, private-school vouchers and education standards. Berry is disappointed that the relationship between state and local governments wasn't studied sooner.

Other significant elements of Thompson's tenure, according to a wide range of political observers, include:

*A dramatic jump in the state's prison population, which led to building several new prisons and exporting prisoners out of state.

*The introduction of BadgerCare, a state-funded health care insurance program for poor families and children.

*The establishment of vetoes as an important part of governors' power; Thompson's legacy includes more than 1,900 vetoes.

*Increasing restrictions on abortion, including a 24-hour waiting period as well as parent notification for minors.

*School revenue caps that hold down teacher salaries.

*Incentives for state businesses and the University of Wisconsin System to work together, especially in the area of bio-technology.

Chet Gerlach, a former Democratic lawmaker from South Milwaukee, said a dramatic expansion in tourism should be added to the list. Gerlach, who now works as executive director of the Association of Wisconsin Tourism Attractions, said the state budget for tourism promotion has jumped from about $ 500,000 to $ 14 million a year under Thompson.

''We've seen tremendous growth, largely because of that,'' he said.

Thompson, who grew up near Wisconsin Dells -- one of the state's best known tourist destinations -- also has raised the state's profile through his enthusiasm and stunts including an annual motorcycle trek.

''Beyond a doubt, he's been the No. 1 cheerleader for the state of Wisconsin, and that has paid dividends for the health of the economy and tourism,'' Gerlach said.

Duane Anderson, a Baptist minister in Kenosha, thinks Thompson has been ''a pretty good'' governor overall. But a glaring mark on his record will be an ''explosion'' in legalized gambling, said Anderson, who helps lead the Wisconsin Coalition Against Gambling Expansion.

On Thompson's watch, the state launched a lottery and allowed for dog tracks and an increasing number of casinos.

''I think the governor will look back at this, in time, as one of his greatest regrets,'' Anderson said.