Tommy G. Thompson Center is Wasteful $3M in State Spending

by Matthew Rothschild, Executive Director

June 5, 2017

In a budget that looks increasingly tight, neither Wisconsin taxpayers nor the University of Wisconsin need to blow $3 million on a sketchy new public policy center named after former Republican Governor Tommy Thompson. Here’s why….

First, the UW already has a public policy center – the well-respected Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs. The La Follette school teaches undergraduate and graduate students, confers advanced degrees, does research, and brings speakers to campus.  At least 25 full- or part-time faculty members hold appointments at the school, which has an annual operating budget of nearly $2.2 million.

Second, the ostensible purpose for creating a new Tommy G. Thompson Center for Public Leadership, is to facilitate research, develop leadership training and improve public policy for Wisconsin. But the underlying reason is to bring a more conservative tilt to public policy issues, and this will exacerbate the hyper-partisan politics that grip Wisconsin because:

  • The announcement of the new center was made by two conservative GOP legislative leaders – Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, of Juneau, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, of Rochester;
  • At least $1 million of the center’s two-year budget would be used to bring speakers to UW campuses across the state to provide “balance” in public policy issues;
  • According to Vos, “Far too often we feel like there is only one legitimate viewpoint on campus. This is just going to make sure that we have diversity of thought." So, it appears the proposed center will be far from an objective, apolitical source for research and information;
  • One of the prime forces behind pushing for the center is Ryan Owens, a UW professor of political science and an attorney who used to work for Thompson when he was governor and hopes to be named as the proposed center’s director;
  • In addition, the center is expected to raise private money to help fund its activities. To do so, Owens will likely pursue funding from right wing foundations and think tanks, such as Milwaukee’s Bradley Foundation, which has funneled millions of dollars into right-leaning causes, including state election campaigns, on a par with the Koch Brothers;
  • The proposed center would be directed by a board that includes the center’s director, an individual named by the Thompson family foundation, a former Thompson aide, and two people each suggested by Vos and Fitzgerald.

So, should the state really spend $3 million in taxpayer dollars on this? The old Tommy Thompson we remember – a pragmatic, bipartisan public servant who was prudent on spending issues – would say no to that.