Debating Doyle’s Legacy

Governor Jim Doyle leaves office next week never having lost an election, but perhaps his legacy will be best defined by a recent interview regarding his successor, Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker. Doyle, commenting on the failure of the proposed high-speed rail line between Milwaukee and Madison, said, “With all due respect, there is a big difference between making a political statement and making a choice.”

Wisc. Governor Jim Doyle (D)

Doyle spent much of his time as governor not living up to the political statements he made. From big issues to small issues, he disappointed and frustrated friend and foe alike. The Doyle motto seemed to be what Rush Limbaugh once described as the strategy of the Clinton White House years, “How do we fool them today?”


Perhaps no other issue defines the governor’s political statements’ relationship to his actual policies than taxes. In his 2003 State of the State address, Doyle said, “Going forward, my mind will be open to every solution except one. We should not, we must not, and I will not raise taxes.”

Shortly after that speech, Doyle proposed to raise the nursing home bed tax from $32 per month per licensed bed to $116 per month per licensed bed to generate $13.8 million for the state’s general fund. More importantly, he vetoed the legislature’s attempt to freeze local property taxes, despite estimates taxes would go up 5.9%.

Since that inauspicious start, Doyle has increased taxes just about everywhere and on everything. From taxes on iPod downloads to the taxes on garbage, it would be difficult to find a tax that Doyle did not want to increase.

In the last state budget, Doyle raised taxes $2 billion and allowed local property taxes to go up an additional $1.5 billion. The previous state budget raised taxes and fees $763 million, and the “fix”to that budget raised taxes again $1.2 billion.

To Doyle’s credit, he did sign the bill that ended the automatic increases in the state’s gas tax.  Two years later Doyle said repeatedly in interviews that he thought ending the automatic tax increase was a mistake.

Balancing the budget

When Governor Jim Doyle was elected in 2002, he campaigned on tackling a $3.2 billion structural budget deficit.  He continued that theme in his 2003 State of the State address, the same speech where he promised not to raise taxes.

“But here in Madison, we face a crisis — a budgetary deficit that imperils state government — one so severe it will, if we do not address it, imperil our people too.”

A structural deficit is when the amount of money needed to maintain current services exceeds the anticipated revenue. As Doyle leaves office, the structural deficit is $3.3 billion.

When Doyle campaigned in 2002, as part of the effort to bring the state’s structural deficit under control Doyle planned to eliminate 15,000 state employees. Wisconsin under Doyle has actually added 2,116 employees since Doyle took office.

In the same speech where Doyle promised not to raise taxes and stressed the dangers of the budget deficit, Doyle also said the problem, “…is not that we tax too little. It is that we spend too much.” In 2003, Wisconsin spent $18.3 billion. By 2010, it is estimated Wisconsin will spend $25.6 billion. Wisconsin’s last budget increased spending by $3.6 billion. Included in the 2009-2010 state budget is $2 billion of federal stimulus funds spent on existing state programs.

The next state legislature will also have to figure out a way to pay back $200 million to the Wisconsin Injured Patients and Families Compensation Fund, fund raids to fuel state spending that have been ruled illegal by the State Supreme Court.

The raids on the Compensation fund were part of a pattern of raids on segregated funds, including over $1.3 billion from the state’s transportation fund. The state then borrows to fill the gaps in those funds, something it cannot do for the state’s general fund. The 2009-2011 budget authorizes $1.3 billion in borrowing for the transportation fund. As a result of all this borrowing, only 88 cents of every dollar collected for transportation actually goes to spending on transportation needs.

In 2009 the Pew Center on the States listed Wisconsin as one of the ten worst states in fiscal peril. “Wisconsin’s history of budget shortfalls and pattern of borrowing frequently to cover operating expenses, among other measures, made it poorly positioned to weather the most recent severe economic downturn.”


Under Doyle, Wisconsin ceased to be known as an innovator in education. Governor Jim Doyle often touted his success at keeping school funding high in Wisconsin, as he did again recently on Up Front with Mike Gousha.  However, the governor does not have an education record to brag about.

In his 2003 State of the State address, Doyle said, “We owe all of Wisconsin’s children — no matter where they come from — a great education.”

Like his other public statements, his actions spoke louder than his words.

In the 2003-2004 legislative session, Doyle used his veto power twice to keep enrollment caps in place on the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP). Doyle relented only when school choice supporters in Milwaukee raised the pressure by organizing in the African American community in 2006 just as the state was creating a rationing plan. Even then, Doyle imposed new restrictions on choice schools and only raised the enrollment cap to 22,500 students.

Doyle again acted in the interests of the teachers unions and against education reform when he threatened to veto a bi-partisan compromise that would have allowed the state’s public charter online schools continue to operate after a lawsuit by the state’s largest union threatened to shut them down. At the last minute, Doyle demanded an enrollment cap be put in place while the online schools were studied.

The enrollment cap on online school enrollment continues, and last year 1,756 students were placed on a waiting list administered by the Department of Public Instruction.

Doyle’s insistence on maintaining the enrollment caps on online charter schools was contrary to his public commitment to seek federal “Race to the Top” education funding. Perhaps that is why Doyle falsely stated on Wisconsin’s application that there were no limits on enrollment in the state’s charter schools.

“Race to the Top” was meant to reward those states that demonstrated significant education reforms. At stake was a share of $4 billion in new federal education money.  States were invited to competitively apply for the funding, and funding would be awarded to those states that demonstrated the biggest commitment education reform. President Barack Obama, with Doyle at his side, announced the program in Madison in 2009.

Despite the public commitment by Doyle, Wisconsin failed twice in its application because it failed to make the serious reforms necessary to be competitive with other states.

The most significant reform proposal pushed by Doyle was to place control of the Milwaukee Public School system in the hands of Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.

However, neither of them could articulate a vision of how that would improve the school system and failed to convince the majority Democrats in the legislature to go along with the proposal.

Meanwhile, the state’s application was faulted for failing to create mechanisms that would have held teachers accountable for the education of students in the classroom. The few reforms that did pass the legislature had the support of the teachers unions, demonstrating that they were not serious reforms.

At the local level, Doyle removed the Qualified Economic Offer that set an amount teachers could expect as an annual increase. As long as a school district offered that amount, the district and the teachers unions would avoid going to arbitration. Without the QEO in place, local property taxpayers run the risk of the districts losing in binding in arbitration and escalating property taxes. Meanwhile, escalating teacher salaries could place in jeopardy school districts’ ability to provide for other costs related to their students’educations.

Other Issues

Legislators on both sides of the aisle learned that Doyle’s rhetoric did not match his governing record on other issues, too.

As attorney general, Doyle criticized changing the appointment process of the Department of Natural Resources Secretary. Doyle supported keeping the appointment being made by the members of the DNR board. However, when he became governor, Doyle changed his position to keeping the appointment power for the governor.

Before Doyle let his new position become fully known by the general public, the executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation George Meyer told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “I really don’t believe he would go back on his word.”

 Doyle vetoed the legislation when it finally came to his desk last year.

As attorney general, Doyle supported legislative oversight of agreements between the states and Native American tribes operating off-reservation casinos. As governor, Doyle vetoed legislation that would have provided for such oversight.

Doyle opposed legislation that would allow citizens to directly petition for referendums to reduce the size of county boards. When the bill made it Doyle’s desk, Doyle signed it.

When Doyle was a candidate for governor in 2002, he criticized his opponent Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk for releasing early some “non-violent” prisoners. When faced with a budget crunch as governor, Doyle included in his last budget the early release of some “non-violent”prisoners.

This kind of cynicism in governing is harmful to the body politic in that it leads the public, special interests and legislators to believe that everything is open for a deal. Unfortunately with Doyle, they may have been right.

So when the major newspapers that endorsed Scott Walker for governor called on him to reverse his position on high-speed rail, who could blame them? Look at whom they have been dealing with for the last eight years.

By James Wigderson
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute