Wisconsin Governor, a Democrat, Sounds Positively Republican

By Joanne M. Haas | July 7, 2008 | 8:29 PM EDT

Madison, Wisconsin (CNSnews.com) - Wisconsin's first Democratic governor in 16 years is wowing some Republicans with his unwavering pledge not to use tax increases to solve a multi-billion-dollar budget deficit. But he's also pleasing his Democratic colleagues by staying true to the party's core issues.

"I wish we could eliminate the entire deficit in the last five months left in the fiscal year," Gov. Jim Doyle said of the state's immediate $452-million deficit and the $3.2 billion hole that looms in the next biennium. "Unfortunately, without cutting essential services like health care or taking funds that school systems and localities have already budgeted, we can't."

Calling Wisconsin "vibrant" and the state government "profoundly troubled," Doyle in his recent State of the State address said the budget deficit is too deep for any one region or segment of population to shoulder the burden alone.

"As a matter of morality and mathematics, everyone must share in the difficult decisions that lie ahead," he said, stopping short of details he plans to unveil in his Feb. 18 budget address.

"What we owe our citizens is a government we can afford -- and a government that works. We can make state government more efficient, and we should."

In a State of the State speech that was interrupted with standing ovations and applause from Republicans as well as Democrats, Doyle had the GOP crowd scratching their heads wondering if the new governor was really a closet Republican.

"I think the Republicans should be very comfortable with that speech. It could have been delivered by George Bush. It could have been delivered by Ronald Reagan," said Republican state Sen. Ted Kanavas, whose district includes the Milwaukee suburbs.

"He said government shouldn't try to run business. He stole that from Ronald Reagan...I wrote down a note to myself, 'Welcome to the GOP.'"

In nearly every public appearance before the Jan. 30 State of the State address, Doyle has reminded his audiences he has not, and will not, forget his campaign pledge to not raise taxes.

Wisconsin now ranks number four among the states when it comes to the state and local tax burden. It has the fifth highest personal income taxes and the 11th highest property taxes, as Doyle has noted repeatedly.

Even though Wisconsin has taxed its citizens heavily, state government over the years has managed to dig one of the nation's deepest deficits.

In recent days, Gov. Doyle and state budget director David Riemer have warned that state spending cuts will be deep and painful. "They will be more severe and hit more agencies and result in more positions eliminated and layoffs than this state has ever seen," Riemer has said publicly on a few occasions.

"Over the last 15 years, state government spending more than doubled," Doyle said in his State of State speech. "The state workforce grew by more than 11,500 people.

"More than 166,000 of our people are out of work. Revenues to the state are down by more than $900 million. All the while, government has continued to spend more and promise more," Doyle said.

"The picture seems bleak. And our situation demands tough choices. But I'm bullish on Wisconsin...and I know we can solve it together."

In his State of the State address, Gov. Doyle repeated parts of his inaugural speech, when he said how sorry he is to say that the state will no longer be able to do everything "we should do."

However, he said, the end result of fiscal restraint would be economic growth and a new prosperity.

He also said if Wisconsin, one of several states facing immense deficits, can emerge from the deep hole, earning a reputation as the state that solved the problem without raising taxes, that will be the first good tax message to come out of the state in a while. "I know we can do it," he said.

Republican Sen. Alberta Darling, also of the Milwaukee suburbs, called Doyle's speech a "Republican message."

"I agree with his priorities," Darling said. "Spending is the issue. Our job is to solve the deficit without raising taxes. Our job is to get this economy going.

"I totally agree that state government has grown disproportionately to personal income." said Darling, co-chair of the Joint Finance Committee. "I felt like I was giving the speech. I thought, 'What did I miss something in the election? Is he a Republican that has come out of the closet? He's hit a home run, but now he's got to get around the bases. The devil is in the details. I wish him luck. This isn't about partisan politics. This is about doing the work of the people and getting the state back on the right track. "

Gov. Doyle, the former attorney general, has never wavered from his No. 1 issue -- education. Education is key in solving the state's fiscal mess, he said, repeating a campaign pledge. "Education must remain our top priority," he added, saying he will remain "very focused on that" as he crafts his budget plan.

"I agree with the governor that even in these tough times, we can protect Democratic priorities like education, health care and the environment while strengthening Wisconsin's economy and attracting the very best jobs to the state," said Assembly Minority Leader Jim Kreuser, a Democrat from Kenosha. "We just have to find creative ways to do more with less," Kreuser added.

Rep. Dean Kauffert, the Neenah Republican who serves as co-chair of the powerful budget-writing Joint Finance Committee, said he appreciated the governor's optimism and eagerness to work with the Legislature in a bipartisan atmosphere that puts the good of the state before everything.

"I think he was reaching out to the Legislature," Rep. Kauffert said. "He used the word 'we' a lot. The themes that he struck lead me to believe that maybe we're going to do this differently this time and we'll work together and make the people proud again. It is kind of exciting to hear the message."

In a speech that was interrupted numerous times by booming applause and standing ovations, none was louder than when Doyle reiterated his most-repeated campaign promise. "Going forward, my mind will be open to every solution - except one," Doyle said of proposals to remedy the deficit. "We should not -- we must not -- and I will not -- raise taxes.

"Wisconsin's problem is not that we tax too little. It is that we spend too much," Doyle said.

Joining in the praise of the State of the State address was Sen. Robert Jauch, D-Poplar, who said: "It's a great state with a god-awful problem, and he (governor) laid it out in a realistic fashion."

Still, Jauch said he didn't agree with the governor's opinion that spending was the core problem. "The core problem was a combination of tax cuts and spending increases at the same time," Jauch said. "It did not happen just because we spent too much. You must remember the governor then identified prescription drugs, higher education, K-12 as part of our core values. Well, I'm not apologizing for the core culture of spending that makes Wisconsin so great."

Senate President Pro Tempore Robert Welch, R-Redgranite, called the address a Republican speech" that other observers said should have pleased rural residents and farmers, as well as all citizens. "We're not raising taxes, we're cutting spending and sharing the pain, and being fiscally responsible," Welch, a one-time U.S. Senate candidate, said of the governor's themes. "Those are the things I would've said if I was standing there. We got the speech, now let's see what the budget says."

Wisconsin's farmers and other citizens would see reduced health insurance costs by joining a state "purchasing pool" unveiled by Doyle in his State of the State.

"We've always had great health care in Wisconsin. But right now, the system isn't working well for anyone involved. Individuals are paying more and getting less," Doyle said. "Farmers tell me of the fear of being one accident or illness away from financial ruin."

Labeling rising health costs as a "major cause of our state's fiscal problems," Doyle said he is calling for a Health Insurance Purchasing Pool to allow individuals to take advantage of the state's buying power. The governor also said he has directed officials to find ways to pool the state's prescription drug purchases with other local governments and other Midwestern states to create an even larger, more powerful buying force.

Other initiatives announced by the governor in his speech include:
-- Passage of a comprehensive campaign finance reform package.
-- Creation of a Governor's Task Force on Education Financing.
-- More efficient state government, achieved through consolidations and mergers.
-- Creation of a Community Connections Initiative led by the governor and his wife, Madison teacher Jessica Doyle, to encourage involvement in middle schools.