Outgoing Gov. Jim Doyle may be best remembered for programs benefiting Wisconsin youth and families, but history also will reflect his struggles with a grim economy and failure to control a runaway budget deficit.
Doyle, a two-term Democratic governor who left office Monday, came into power in 2003 after Republicans had occupied that seat for 16 years. He often talked about how he inherited a $3.2 billion state budget deficit from former Gov. Scott McCallum; and now as Doyle departs, he leaves his successor, Republican Gov. Scott Walker, with an estimated budget shortfall of up to $3.3 billion in the 2011-13 biennium.
This newspaper has criticized the questionable accounting methods used by Doyle — a practice begun during Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson’s administration — in which money is transferred from segregated funds to balance the state budget. In four budget cycles, Doyle took a combined total of more than $1.3 billion from the state’s transportation fund to make up for shortfalls.
Doyle and the state Legislature also pulled $200 million from a state medical malpractice fund to balance the 2007-09 budget. But the state Supreme Court in August ruled against the money transfer, leaving Walker and the new Legislature to figure out how to pay it back, plus interest and other costs.
Doyle stuck by his claim to have balanced each budget, but he did so while building a larger structural deficit. His inability to make deep spending cuts also hurt the state when the recession hit, and he was forced to back out on his pledge to not lay off or furlough state employees.
Throughout his tenure, Doyle approved billions in new fees and taxes, such as the ones aimed at smokers, businesses and high wage-earners.
Despite the economic and political challenges he faced, Doyle remained a strong ally of the state’s educational system and initiatives geared toward young people. He considers the Wisconsin Covenant — a program designed to make college more affordable for students across the state — to be among his major accomplishments.
We see his most noteworthy actions in approving the statewide smoking ban and expanding access to health care insurance to nearly every Wisconsin resident.
Doyle departs as recent polls show him with an approval rating of about 36 percent, his lowest since taking office. But his legacy as a statewide politician spans 20 years — serving 12 years as Wisconsin attorney general before becoming governor. And although we disagreed at times with his policies and decisions, it is undeniable that he steered the state through a serious economic downturn unseen since the Great Depression.
Doyle admirably followed a family tradition of public service, and we wish him, and first lady Jessica, well as they transition into private life, or whatever the future holds for them.
Green Bay Press-Gazette