Editorial cartoon (3/9/11)

What a difference 100 years make.

While 2011 finds Wisconsin government embroiled in what seems to be eternal chaos, with our governor pitting the rich against the poor, it also marks the 100th anniversary of what is still known as the most productive and progressive legislative session in the history of Wisconsin, if not the nation.

The work of the 1911 Legislature was the culmination of a decade of reform in our state that began with the election of Robert M. “Fighting Bob” La Follette as governor in 1900, a hard-fought victory for the progressive wing of the Republican Party over the GOP’s old guard, which had ruled since the Civil War, the so-called Stalwarts.

That Legislature turned Wisconsin government into a model for other states, earning it a reputation for progressive experimentation and creative thinking. Our state was seen as championing honest government while expanding democracy and promoting what became known as the “Wisconsin Idea,” a partnership between our great university and the citizens of Wisconsin. Indeed, the work of that Legislature just 20 years later greatly influenced President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, including what became known as Social Security.

It is a reputation, unfortunately, that 100 years later is being turned upside down by an arrogant governor and a Legislature that is all too quick to proclaim, “Me too.”

When La Follette took office in 1901 after more than a decade of battles with the Stalwarts over the domination of state government by big business, banks and the railroads, progress toward his goal of having government serve the people, not special interests, was slow because of a reluctant Legislature.

But he did get the ball rolling on a tough civil service law to depoliticize the state’s work force and got the university to take a bigger role in state government, what became known as the Wisconsin Idea. Faculty experts in law and economics, and the social and economic sciences, agreed to serve on key commissions and in state positions to share their expertise.

La Follette left the governorship on Jan. 1, 1905, to serve in the U.S. Senate. His successor, another progressive and La Follette’s lieutenant governor, James Davidson, succeeded in the next five years in enacting several progressive laws, including state control of corporate stock issues; empowering the railroad commission to regulate transportation; and enacting a landmark insurance code that strictly regulated insurance companies, which had a history of defrauding unsuspecting policy holders.

In November of 1910, Wisconsin voters for the sixth election in a row sent a progressive to the governor’s office, but this time the new governor, Francis McGovern, was joined by solid progressives in both houses of the Legislature. That set up the productive 1911 session to come.

By the time legislators adjourned later in the year, they had created the nation’s first effective workers’ compensation program to protect people injured on the job. They passed laws to regulate factory safety, encouraged the formation of cooperatives to aid farmers throughout the state, established a progressive income tax to be shared by local units of government and school districts, formed a state life insurance fund, limited working hours for women and children, passed forest and water power conservation acts, and instituted a state highway system. Those were just the starters.

Contrast that record with today’s governor and state Legislature.

We no longer plan for the future and the long-term welfare of our state’s citizens. Instead of improving infrastructure by using federal grants, we give them to other states. Instead of enacting legislation to benefit working people, we scheme to break their unions. Instead of enacting protections for the vulnerable, we introduce legislation to weaken the state’s laws on providing health care for the poor. Instead of legislation to conserve forests and water, we tout bills to rescind DNR’s authority and turn down efforts to produce green energy. Instead of protecting the public schools, we scheme to take more money from them and turn it over to private ones.

Rep. Steve Nass wants to repeal the law that challenges race-based mascot names for school sports. Sen. Alberta Darling wants the state to decide the formation of charter schools, taking away that authority from the local school districts that fund them. Rep. Andre Jacque wants to end the state’s farmland preservation program, which helps protect farmland from developers.

Yes, some 100 years later, the Stalwarts are back in charge. Government is no longer serving the people, but rather the special interests that Fighting Bob and the progressives drove from the Capitol.

The time has come to drive them away again.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. dzweifel@madison.com