A topic of this winter’s political hot stove league: could Jim Doyle have survived his summer and fall of discontent?
By the time the governor pulled the plug on his re-election and jetted off on yet another foreign trade mission, his poll numbers were already subterranean. He carried the considerable baggage of higher taxes and fees, prisoner releases, insurance mandates, ongoing budget deficits and unpopular decisions on domestic partnerships, concealed carry and voter ID.
But as he skipped town, the political environment grew even more sour. He left behind him a state government that was becoming a scene of cascading bureaucratic failure. A sample of the season’s stories:
*An audit found that state officials squandered as much as $20 million in taxpayer-funded child-care funds through incompetence and fraud in 2008 alone. The multi-million dollar Wisconsin Shares program provided almost daily fodder for front page stories on waste, bureaucratic arrogance, and waste.
*The toll was measured in lives as well as dollars. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported that the state run Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare had ignored warning signs that lead to the deaths of nearly two dozen children over the last five years, under Doyle’s watch.
*As the bureaucratic meltdowns in the Department of Children and Families wasn’t bad enough, state officials admitted that they were missing the DNA profiles of at least 12,000 Wisconsin felons from the state’s database, despite legal requirements they be collected. The failure was an embarrassment for both the Department of Corrections, which answers to Doyle and the Justice Department, formerly headed by…Jim Doyle.
*An audit found that the state’s attempt to consolidate its computer servers has already cost $90.9 million – seven times more than the Doyle administration had estimated. Auditors said that by the time the state got the system right, it would cost nine times what Doyle had originally projected.
*After Doyle personally unveiled a new and inexplicable “Live Like You Mean It” slogan and logo to promote state tourism – which cost taxpayers $251,306 -- the administration ended up scrapping the much derided campaign.
*News on the economic front was hardly better. In June, General Motors announced that it had picked Michigan over Wisconsin in a competition to build GM's next-generation small car. Doyle had pushed hard for the government owned-GM to pick Janesville, where 1,200 jobs were lost when production ended. Doyle’s pull with the White House? Nada.
It is unlikely in the extreme that any of this would have helped Doyle’s approval numbers, or reversed voters’ declining faith in state government itself. In October, a poll by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute and the University of Wisconsin found that only a miniscule 1.86 percent of state residents said they trusted state government to “do what is right” all the time. A stunning 68.14 percent said they trusted state government “only some of the time,” or “never.”
Few incumbents, much less one as personally unpopular as Doyle, would be able to survive that resounding a vote of no-confidence.
More ominous for Doyle and other incumbents: voters gave the state especially low marks for its handling of the economy.
In the WPRI/UW poll, only 13.43 percent said that the policies of state government had made the economic situation in the state better. Nearly 80 percent said that those policies had either made the economy worse or had no effect.
Their verdict was echoed by national observers: in September, the Tax Foundation dropped Wisconsin from 38th to 42nd in a ranking of state business climates, largely as a result of Doyle’s recent tax increases.
Within days, Forbes magazine ranked the state even lower – saying that Wisconsin was now one of the three worst states in the country for business. In the Forbes list, Wisconsin dropped from 43rd in 2006 to 48th in 2009 in a measurement that included costs, labor supply, regulatory environment, current economic climate, growth prospects and quality of life.
Conceivably, Doyle could once again have tapped friendly special interests – casino interests, trial lawyers, unions – to mount a well-funded campaign; he could have hoped for an economic rebound and the renewed coattails of a president who remains relatively popular in a state that still tends to vote Democratic.
But as summer turned to fall, Doyle increasingly looked like a character in the Southwest Airlines ad: “Want to get away?”
And indeed, he did.
-October 14, 2009