Tommy Thompson sees an opening. As the national debt nears the $9 trillion mark, Democrats and Republicans may be sympathetic to a presidential aspirant who will actually do something to rein in spending, rather than just pay lip service to the idea of a balanced budget. And so Thompson, the former Republican governor of Wisconsin and secretary of Health and Human Services, officially threw his hat into the ring this month as a deficit hawk who will bring "Midwestern values" to the White House. "People feel the Republicans lost their way in Washington," Thompson told George Stephanopoulos on ABC's "This Week" as he announced his candidacy. "They believe that they're trying to spend as much money as the Democrats."
There's just one problem: As governor, Thompson racked up a reckless spending record and left residents with a $3.5 billion deficit as a going-away gift. Although his new campaign website claims that he "repeatedly cut taxes while holding the line on state spending," the truth is just the opposite: Thompson has always been a shopaholic.
The booming economy of the Clinton years generated sizable revenue windfalls for states across the country. For Republican governors like Thompson--who had spent his first years in office (a period of recession) mostly tinkering with social programs--this meant they could now have their cake and eat it too, spending lavishly while at the same time cutting taxes. "You see a new breed of [activist spending] among us," Thompson bragged in 1998.
In Wisconsin, Thompson's activism took a number of forms. In 1994, he ran for reelection promising to dramatically boost funding for K-12 schools, and his 1995-1997 budget did so by some $1.2 billion. In 1996, Thompson completely overhauled the state's welfare system, placing the emphasis on job placement. The goal may have been to relieve Wisconsin's welfare burden, but doing so meant increasing spending by about $40 million per year over what the state had already been paying.
Next up was BadgerCare, Thompson's attempt to provide health insurance to Wisconsin's working poor, which began in 1999. The state ponied up $56.6 million for the program (supplemented by $101.8 million in federal funds). The same year, Thompson also pushed through the development of a $47 million "Supermax" prison to house "the worst of the worst" of Wisconsin's criminal offenders.
These initiatives may have been well-intentioned, but they were poorly conceived and poorly executed, and they were definitely not the hallmarks for fiscal conservatism. Administrative costs for W-2 and BadgerCare ballooned far beyond what had been expected. In the case of BadgerCare, Thompson budgeted for only about 25,000 adults to receive assistance, but nearly twice that number qualified. Even prison officials viewed the new Supermax facility as unwise, and it quickly became obsolete, requiring hundreds of thousands of dollars to maintain in working order. Rather than hold the line on spending, Thompson simply threw good money after bad.
That may seem like a peculiar kind of conservatism, to be sure, but Thompson had an explanation. "I have debated conservatives who think that welfare reform is going to save money," he told The New York Times Magazine in 1997 about W-2. "And I have told them that changing a system from dependence to independence is going to cost more, because you have to put money into child care and into job training and medical care and transportation."
During the economic growth of the mid-'90s, this might not have been such a bad plan. But Thompson's activism was coupled with other conservative policies that set the state up for disaster. At the same time he was increasing spending, Thompson passed a series of tax cuts in the latter half of the '90s that robbed the state of billions of dollars in revenue. This followed the dictates of a conservative strategy known as "fiscal brinksmanship," which sought to reduce the size of government by slashing revenue during times of economic growth and cutting expenditures during recessions.
As a result, when the bubble burst in 2000, Wisconsin was left in the lurch. By January 2001, when Thompson left to join the Bush administration, the state faced a $2.4 billion deficit. A year later, the deficit had grown by another $1.1 billion. A "Rainy Day Fund" had been established in 1986 to alleviate such crises, but Thompson never appropriated any money for it. Consequently, the governors who inherited the financial mess, Scott McCallum and Jim Doyle, were forced to make severe budget cuts. McCallum even borrowed heavily from future money designated for tobacco-abuse prevention.
All this seems to be water under the bridge for Thompson the presidential candidate. But, while he and his supporters may point to his refusal to raise taxes as proof of his conservative bona fides, voters should take note of the other side of his record. In hindsight, an unprecedented flow of federal revenue was the only thing keeping Wisconsin afloat.
Perhaps Thompson deserves credit for bravely--albeit carelessly--trying to tackle his state's biggest problems head-on. But for those who are concerned about the national deficit, they could do better than Wisconsin's governor. "I am a reliable conservative," Thompson proclaimed last month in Iowa. That's debatable. But a reliable spender? That's for sure.
Alex Runner is a former columnist and contributing writer for Milwaukee Magazine. He currently works for the City of Milwaukee.