Governor on a Wire: Doyle's Balancing Act
By Christian Schneider
It happens on pretty much a weekly basis now. I get my mutual fund statements in the mail, and stare at them, wondering whether it would be more painful to read them or to use them to give myself papercuts on my eyeballs. My investment statements have gotten so indecent, they’re starting to send them to me wrapped in a discreet paper bag, so my children can’t see them.
If you do venture into a private room and crack one open, your mutual fund’s annual report will say something like this:
“While the fund continued to meet its income objectives for the year, we are disappointed by its total return, which marks the worst fiscal year in its 21-year history. The depth of the recent financial crisis and a recession which will most likely linger throughout the coming year has made this market environment the most challenging in a generation. Our primary goal is to continue growing income for our shareholders. While our projections for the coming fiscal year have given us confidence, we strongly caution that this past year’s growth of income is unlikely to continue, and should not be expected in the future.”
Ahhh, the hearty optimism of mutual fund report writers. They have to, at the same time, tell you that you’ll be homeless in three weeks, but that it’s not their fault and that the future holds untold riches. Their comforting words are like a soft flannel blanket in January. Allow me to translate what the above paragraph means:
“Your life savings are worthless, your wife is cheating on you, your daughter is dating Lil Wayne, your favorite band just stopped taking drugs, your house is on fire, Brett Favre just announced he’s coming out of retirement to quarterback your favorite team, and someone just slipped some ravenous piranhas into your underwear.”
As it turns out, mutual fund managers aren’t the only ones that have to walk the tightrope of telling people things are bad, but giving them reason to be optimistic. Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle essentially manages this giant mutual fund called “Wisconsin government.” (Incidentally, if there were such a mutual fund, Jim Cramer would be urging you to buy it.) Depending on what hour it is, Doyle is either trying to convince you that things are as bad as they were during the Great Depression, or we’re in the midst of a statewide Renaissance because of his leadership.
While up on his tightrope, the things Jim Doyle has to explain to us are:
- Why the governor believes more state spending is the key to economic “stimulus” within the state – when he has increased total state government spending by 32% since he took office, and it “stimulated” Wisconsin into the fourth worst budget deficit in the United States. Perhaps his proposed $3 billion in new taxes can catapult us to number one.
- How the state can be in the grips of a historic economic downturn, yet his budget expects general fund tax revenue growth of 2.5% in Fiscal Year 2010 and 4.1% in 2011. Even in the comparatively mild recession of 2001, it took the state three years to see any real revenue growth.
- How the state’s $5.9 billion deficit is entirely the fault of George W. Bush, even though Doyle has been governor for seven years and introduced four biennial budgets – each of which has left the state with enormous structural deficits.
- How it is he can say the state is suffering through “the largest cuts we’ve ever seen” in his 2009-11 budget, while spending increases nearly 10% over the previous budget. In his budget speech, Doyle says his spending plan entails some “hard decisions” – yet it appears the only tough decision he will face is what kind of flower arrangement he’ll send President Obama in exchange for the $4.5 billion in federal money Wisconsin will get to allow it to spend billions more, while pretending to “cut” $5.9 billion.
- How he can criticize state budgets in the 1990s for “expensive new programs,” the “excessive use of one-time money,” and “runaway deficits,” when each of his budgets has seen a dramatic escalation in expensive new programs, the excessive use of one-time money, and runaway deficits.
- How Doyle can say his budgets are “for the middle class – and those trying to get there,” when they have included hundreds of millions of dollars in regressive taxes that harm the lower class disproportionately. On top of that, Doyle has balanced his budgets by issuing debt to fund ongoing expenditures – debt bought by wealthy financiers, whose pockets regular taxpayers must stuff for 20 years or more, in exchange for one year of state spending.
In 1974, Frenchman Philippe Petit stretched a tightrope between the Twin Towers in New York City, dancing on a wire between the buildings for 45 minutes. He couldn’t believe he was arrested for his “crime,” believing he had given the world a beautiful piece of performance art.
Governor Jim Doyle’s tightrope walk has certainly given Wisconsin a piece of something. In the end, all Governors have is their legacy. And Jim Doyle’s legacy to Wisconsin will be years of deficits, higher taxes, and fiscal irresponsibility. He is a governor without achievement, and will be relegated to the back of the Blue Book as a footnote in Wisconsin history.
Governor Cadwaller Colden Washburn, meet your roommate.
-April 6, 2009