The Contrarian

What Would Tommy Do?

Walker could learn a lot from Tommy Thompson on how to handle a budget dispute.

By - Jul 24th, 2017 09:33 am


Correction: I wrote here recently (“What Would Tommy Do””) to suggest that the transportation finance impasse now stalling the state budget would not have occurred under former Governor Tommy Thompson.

But a report from veteran Capitol journalist Steve Walters shows I got it wrong. Describing current support for a gas tax hike from former legislators David Prosser and Mike Ellis, Walters noted they were in the Legislature in 1995 “when the budget for highways was separated from other state spending and finally passed on Nov. 16.”  

The 1995 Legislature was controlled by Republicans, just as it is today. So, in this regard, the healing powers I attributed to Governor Thompson were off-base.

My only excuse is a lame one. I was 100% invested in the historic expansion of school choice that was part of the budget adopted in 1995. I obviously paid no attention to the fact that the transportation aspect of that budget produced a protracted delay.

A Capitol cliche, widely employed and often accurately so, goes about like this: “Tommy would not have let this happen.”

“This” applies to any of various logjams involving the Governor and Legislature following the tenure of Tommy Thompson.

It most surely applies to the current budget stalemate. Once resolved — as they always eventually are — the temporary impasse over transportation will leave unnecessary scars that will linger for awhile. This is due in no small measure to decisions by Governor Scott Walker. Here are just a few things — the list is long — of actions by Governor Walker that would not have been part of a Tommy Thompson game-plan.

Moving goal posts on a baseline position

More than a year ago Governor Walker stated that “raising the gas tax or vehicle registration fees without an equal or greater reduction in taxes elsewhere is not an option.”

This was a position Walker offered on several occasions. With general fund and property tax cuts of several billion since the 2010 elections, this created the prospect for compromise. When higher than expected revenue estimates were announced last fall, talk of such a deal heightened.

Then early this year the Walker administration severed the linkage that could have fostered a compromise. The new message: any gas tax hike will be vetoed, period.

Using Photo-Op Media Events to Target Republicans

Repeatedly during May and June Governor Walker summoned reporters and TV cameras to locations where highway projects were underway. Accompanied by large signs labeled “Just get it done,” the Governor unambiguously warned that such projects were threatened if the Assembly did not pass a budget on time or if it approved a “base budget” that did not borrow hundreds of millions.

Several members of the Assembly seethed. Speaker Robin Vos would have been justified in holding counter events to announce his readiness to not only finish such project but to pay for them with cash.

Slashing the tires of Senate Republicans

Last Tuesday Senate Republicans, who have stood solidly with Walker on not raising the gas tax, announced a transportation plan that included $712 million in new highway debt. Walker previously had proposed $500 million and later $300 million in new highway borrowing; he had been open to higher levels if tied to a new boost of federal aid. A Walker spokesman issued a mildly positive statement about the Senate plan.

Within 24 hours the Governor offered an olive branch to the Assembly by proposing to eliminate virtually all the debt favored by the Senate. For good measure, he recommended elimination of a tax cut favored by the Senate and suggested the revenue instead by used for highways.

The upshot from such unconstructive forays by the Governor includes a continuing series of public barbs cast between Assembly and Senate leaders. While a short-term deal eventually will be done to get budget passed, and legislative life will move on, the rhetoric and occasionally personal attacks will leave marks.

A day after blindsiding the Senate the Governor spoke to reporters and observed the following: “Part of my role as a leader not just in my party but over all the state is to listen and try to figure out how to bring different interests together.” To which a close observer of the current fracas circulated the following image:


So, what would Tommy do?

Without fanfare, many weeks ago he would have summoned the key players. Probably to the Executive Residence. Beer might have been served. The message would have been simple: We’re all on the same team. We will look foolish fighting in public. We’re not heading home until there’s a clear path to a deal.

9 thoughts on “The Contrarian: What Would Tommy Do?”

  1. Bill Kurtz says:

    Kudos for adding Mitchell’s views. Jessica McBride now has company as an intellectually honest local conservative.

  2. George Mitchell says:

    Hi Bill,

    Thanks, Geo

  3. Jason Troll says:

    Tommy was a big government Republican. Property taxes skyrocket under his watch. If Walker wants to stay Governor he can not raise taxes and the day he does. The Democrats will pounce on him. I can see the adds running in Northern Wisconsin.” Look, Walker raise your gas taxes to build roads in Milwaukee. Look Walker ‘s building a new Buck’s Arena with your money in Milwaukee. Look, Walker did not stop that Trolley in Milwaukee and your money was used. I’m Tony Evers your next Governor”.

  4. George Mitchell says:

    Jason needs an editor.

  5. Max says:

    Jason … And Walker is not a BIG “government” Republican? He’s imposed his radical views on just about every aspect of Wisconsin life, all to satisfy his big money pals. Local control is a thing of the past in Wisconsin. Try drinking the water say in Kewaunee County, on second thought, don’t, we want you alive. And Walker is fundamentally dishonest, he’s big on taxes, just delaying them until all that borrowing comes due. Tommy is remembered fondly and widely across Wisconsin for spending on programs and projects benefiting a large swath of Wisconsin, Walker will be vilified more than he is now for the mess he fully intends to leave behind.

  6. Paul Trotter says:

    Troll – The Dems will not pounce on Walker for raising the gas tax. Dems are incapable of playing hardball. Furthermore they will not engage in divide and conquer politics. It’s just not in their DNA.

  7. George Mitchell says:

    There is sufficient polling to suggest voters would support a gas tax increase once they understand the modest impact. It is stunning to me that Dems have not exploited the issue by tying R’s to lousy roads. Senator Erpenbach said recently Dems are not at the table so they have not offered a plan. What? Really?

  8. Paul Trotter says:

    George- agree – the Dems are simply wiffle ball players. Or perhaps a better image is T- Ball players. Yet not one of them has stepped up to the plate and said “here hit it”.

    Where is the leadership?

  9. Mary Kay Wagner says:

    It is true that were there someone other than Lena Taylor representing Senate Democrats on the Joint Finance the Democrats might have a more powerful voice. However, Dems have offered ideas that are batted aside without a second thought because for the most part the Republicans won’t involve them in the actual negotiations. The thought is, Repubs can pass a budget without the Dems. The obvious question is: How’s that working? And the answer: No so well….

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