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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Conservative Revisionist History on Gov. Doyle and Tobacco

See UPDATE below . . . and another important UPDATE, too

Robert Flessas is a Town of Brookfield Supervisor who blogs, in a couple of places, from a conservative, anti-government perspective (indeed, one of his blogs is titled "Public Trough"). And, though I disagree with his perspective, he's certainly entitled to his own opinion. He is not, however, entitled to his own facts. Today, at both of his blogs, he's posted an anti-Doyle screed that invents a history out of whole cloth. (UPDATED: See below--the posts seem to have been deleted.)

Flessas is writing about the most recent floating of that perennial favorite trial balloon, raising the cigarette tax. The revenue such a tax would generate would be spent on smoking cessation and prevention as well as funding reforms to the health care system in the state. It's not a new idea. But here's a piece of Flessas's post; see if you can spot the problem:
A recent article appearing in the paper quoted Doyle as saying, " . . . he sees the benefit of raising the cigarette tax to reduce smoking and the cost of smoking-related illnesses but would favor it only if the additional revenue was guaranteed to be isolated for health care."

Where did we hear that line before? Let's take a walk down memory lane.

About 6 years ago, the state of Wisconsin settled with tobacco companies and received almost $6 Billion dollars earmarked to curb the effects of smoking and prevent young people from starting.

When Doyle was our attorney general, he scoffed at attempts to use the settlement for anything other than tobacco prevention. But, when he was elected to his first term as governor, Doyle and our legislators sold the rights to the money, and used the funds to balance a huge state budget deficit created by our pension grubbing, premium healthcare state officials.

So, why should we believe Doyle's contention now?
I realize we're talking about ancient history here--things that happened more than half a decade ago--so if your memory fails you, as Flessas's apparently has, I can forgive you. But Flessas's assertion that "when he was elected to his first term as governor, Doyle [. . .] sold the rights to the money" is patently false. 100% false. Falser than false can be.

It is entirely true that a few budget cycles ago, the state was facing a massively ugly deficit, and the choices for plugging the hole seemed to be eliminating revenue sharing with municipalities, cutting school equalization aid, or selling off the tobacco settlement money for bonds. The settlement money was sold off in May, 2002. For those of you keeping score at home, May, 2002 is six months before Doyle was elected, eight months before he took office, and a full year before he passed his first budget.

The real fault lies with then-Governor Scott McCallum, and such shining stars of the Joint Finance Committee as then-Rep. (and now unemployed) John Gard and then-Sen. (and now ex-con) Brian Burke.

Flessas's revision of history is even worse than just getting the timeline wrong; he implies a certain level of flip-floppitiness on Doyle's part, ascribing to him a seeming desire to shaft anti-smoking efforts. In fact, Gov. Doyle has been a steady advocate of smoking prevention ever since he won our settlement as Atorney General back in 1998.*

In 1999, Doyle publicly lambasted then-Gov. (and now-presidential candidate) Tommy Thompson, who used his very busy veto pen to cut funding from that settlement for anti-smoking campaigns. And that was just the beginning of Doyle's critiques of how the money was used for other purposes. He nailed McCallum on the campaign trail in 2002 for selling the money, and investigated, among his first acts, buying back some of the money so we could see residual income on at least something.

If Flessas has read the AP story going around about the proposed dollar-a-pack tax, he would have read how Gov. Doyle "is still angry that lawmakers spent the state's tobacco settlement money in one lump sum to balance the budget in 2002." That might have been enough to save Flessas the embarrassment here.

In the end, when Flessas asks why we should believe Doyle "now," I would answer, simply, that since Doyle has maintained a consistent position since suing the tobacco companies a decade ago, it's easy to believe him.

I've emailed Flessas, as his blogs don't take comments, asking for a correction. If and when he posts that correction, I'll let you know.

UPDATE: Flessas has posted a separate correction at his Blogger-powered blog, and he has also amended his Brookfield Now blog post. The original post (still prominently linked to from makes no note of the correction.

UPDATE, Friday, 5:30 AM: Flessas seems to have deleted the offending posts from his blogs entirely.

* My information comes from this well-sourced timeline. The link takes you to the Ws (the site lists all 50 states), so scroll down a few screens to Wisconsin, then read from the bottom up.

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