Remembering Tony Earl: When a governor brought everyone to the table

February 27, 2023 6:30 am

Tony Earl, then Wisconsin DNR secretary, at his desk in 1980. Earl was governor from 1983-1987. He died Thursday, Feb. 23. (UW-Madison Digital Library | Licensed under CC BY ND-4.0 )

My most rewarding years in the Wisconsin state Senate were the four years when Tony Earl was governor. In those years I was the Senate majority Leader and Tom Loftus was the Assembly speaker.

Tony Earl, Wisconsin governor from 1983 to 1987, died on Thursday, Feb. 23. Former Wisconsin State Sen. Tim Cullen offers this reminiscence.

We were all Democrats, but we also each had some of our own ideas. Even so, Gov. Earl  always wanted to work with us, not just “tolerate” us. It was good government!

The early 1980’s were the beginning of the end of both parties having some members who were liberal, moderate or conservative. That’s hard to believe today. Gov. Earl could work with all of them.

The big issue at the beginning of his term in early 1983 was the huge deficit he had inherited from his predecessor, Republican Gov. Lee Dreyfus, who did not run for a second term.

One consequence of the deficit was that the unemployment compensation fund, which made weekly payments to unemployed workers, was broke. The money came from Wisconsin businesses, which were taxed based on how much their employees drew from it over time.

Coming out of the recession in the early 1980s, layoffs had drained the fund. Finding a solution fell in the lap of the new governor. 

Tony Earl did not believe that the amount paid to workers should go up and down depending on which party was in power. It was typical of his approach to politics and to government. 

So, what did the governor do?  He appointed a four-member committee made up of leaders of both parties from both houses: two Democrats and two Republicans. And he told us we all had to vote on the end product — and that it had to be unanimous. 

Organized labor was not happy to say the least. One leader famously complained that after union volunteers had helped put Democrats in the governor’s office and in the majority in both houses of the Legislature, Earl had no business letting the Republicans have a voice. 

But Gov. Earl was determined that the solution would have to be a compromise. It was, and we voted 4-0 on the final package. 

Both parties got something but not all they wanted. Neither party was very happy. But that goal was not why Tony Earl was governor. Can you imagine a Wisconsin governor doing this now?

Thirty years later, in 2013, with one-party control of state government, the Republicans did exactly what Gov. Earl had avoided. 

That year, Gov. Scott Walker and the GOP majorities in the Senate and the Assembly enacted legislation that required laid-off employees to wait one week after filing for unemployment compensation before they could receive their benefits — reversing a law that had been in effect since 1976.

Of course, most of the business community loved the change. It cost them less! And tough luck for the unemployed workers. 

That legislation passed with only Republican votes. It is so clear to me, to this day, that faced with the same situation, Gov. Earl had the right answer: Get everyone to sit together and reach an agreement across party lines. 

Gov. Earl also inherited the state’s “temporary” sales tax increase of one percentage point that Dreyfus had signed in 1982. 

Every adult in Madison knew that the deficit had gotten so large, the 5% sales tax would have to be made permanent. But to no surprise, it was Gov. Earl who took the unpopular stance, signing the bill that made the increase permanent and helped to help reduce the deficit.

Midway through his term, Gov. Earl led a trade mission to China in 1984. A busload of business leaders went along, of course, but he gave me the honor of accompanying them as a representative of our Legislature.

As he met and talked with Chinese leaders, I was impressed with his ability to communicate and interact with them. It’s too bad that he isn’t available today — I’m sure President Joe Biden could use someone with his skills in dealing with China today.

Over the course of my career in and out of politics I have known 12 governors. Of all of them, Gov. Earl cared the least about politics. His first priority was always public policy, regardless of the political cost. 

Of course, he paid a price for that: In 1986 Gov. Earl lost reelection to Tommy Thompson. Up to that point Thompson, the Assembly minority leader, had mostly been famous as “Doctor No” in the Capitol, standing on the outside of most of Gov. Earl’s policy initiatives. 

There’s no denying that Gov. Thompson went on to become much more popular, successfully winning reelection three times. 

But I hope even after his passing, that more people will learn more about Tony Earl, the hard decisions he made in his single term and how he worked to bring everyone to the table where those decisions were made — and that with the consideration of history, he might become just as popular today. 

He very much deserves it.


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Tim Cullen
Tim Cullen

Tim Cullen served in the Wisconsin state Senate from 1975 to 1987 and again from 2011 to 2015.