Tommy Thompson
Former Gov. Tommy Thompson

Gov. Scott Walker is obviously a big fan of former Gov. Tommy Thompson. Walker evoked images of Thompson in his inauguration speech and during last week’s budget address.

This is what he said:

“Back in the 1980s – when I was growing up in the small town of Delavan — we faced similar circumstances in our state. A tough economy and a tight budget were the top issues 25 years ago.

“Tommy Thompson brought into office bold new ideas and strong leadership. At the time, defenders of the status quo took offense. But by the end of his first term, those reforms helped balance the budget and those policies helped the private sector create 258,000 new jobs. I remember Governor Thompson’s optimism and the excitement he created when we turned our state around back then. If we did it a generation ago, we can do it again today.”

Thompson did some innovative things as governor, including welfare reform, school choice and establishing BadgerCare for uninsured families. He deserves credit for helping break some of the cycle of welfare dependency.

But it’s time to bust the myth that Thompson was the paragon of conservatism on the platforms of less government and reduced spending.

In fact, the opposite is true.

State spending increased 118 percent under the Thompson administration from 1987 to 2001. Thompson did add jobs — state government employment rose 25 percent.

Those are hardly numbers that speak to conservative fiscal policies.

The 1990s were a time of economic prosperity in Wisconsin and in our nation. President Bill Clinton benefited from that boom as he balanced the budget. So did Thompson, who spent money as fast as it was coming in.

Governing is easy when increasing revenues flow in because of a healthy economy. It’s much more difficult during times of recession, as we know all too well. Spending was reduced slightly under former Gov. Scott McCallum, who took over during Thompson’s final term, from 2001-2003. And spending under Gov. Jim Doyle increased 15 percent through 2009 and about 10 percent in his last budget.

While Walker wants to reduce what the state spends on pensions, it was his hero and mentor Thompson who helped guide through a pension sweetener law in 1999 that gave all employees a 10 percent increase in the value of their pension and increased from 65 to 70 percent what employees could collect in pension payments from their final average salary.

During tougher economic times, a bipartisan Wisconsin Expenditure Commission appointed by Gov. Tony Earl recommended in 1985 that the government set spending and taxing levels in relation to national averages — a sharp deviation from our state’s history of taxing and spending above national averages. Those recommendations were ignored.

That was then and this is now. Wisconsin has virtually no

rainy day fund, and we’ve continued to spend even during an economic downturn. There are plenty of past sinners to blame on both sides of the aisle.

Thompson may have created excitement and optimism, but the facts show Walker should be careful about conjuring up the economic policies of the 1990s as the pathway to prosperity in 2011.

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