Just before Christmas, Governor Tony Evers (D) announced his selection of Craig Thompson to be the next secretary of the Department of Transportation (DOT). While the choice has earned praise among road builders, supporters of good government and fiscal responsibility should be skeptical of the appointment.
Thompson was the head of the Transportation Development Association (TDA), a Madison-based special interest group with over 400 member organizations, many of them road builders who stand to benefit from having a close ally at the helm of one of the largest state agencies. For years, Thompson has advocated for more transportation spending and raising taxes to do it. He reiterated his commitment to boosting revenue through new or higher taxes shortly after Evers announced his appointment.
According to public records, Thompson has been a registered lobbyist since 2005, and since 2010 he has led the TDA. During the 2017-2018 legislative session, TDA spent over $350,000 on lobbying efforts, according to the Wisconsin Ethics Commission. Over that same time period, Thompson served as the public face of a coordinated attack on Governor Scott Walker’s commitment to not raise the gas tax. Raising the gas tax, incidentally, is a regressive policy that would disproportionately impact the pocketbooks of low and middle income Wisconsin residents.
As one of the largest state agencies, the DOT manages a large amount of money and resources. The department’s budget request (which will likely be modified by the incoming administration) asks lawmakers for $6 billion in state and federal funds for the next two years. Where that money goes and how it will be spent is largely in the hands of the secretary once the legislature signs off on a budget.
It is unwise to put someone paid by road builders and local governments to lobby for their agenda at the head of the agency that manages the contracts, regulations and guidelines impacting road builders and local governments. I’m not alone in my skepticism.
The CapTimes recently quoted a UW-Madison transportation expert who expressed similar reservations about the appointment. “Governors usually don’t pick vendors, or vendors’ representatives, to lead departments they depend on for business,” Eric Sundquist told the paper. “The conflict sets up problems when there’s a revenue ask, raising the appearance of devoting new taxes to the secretary’s own industry.”
It is one thing to be an expert in a field. It is another to be the face of the special interest group that has for years clamored for more spending to benefit the bottom line of their members. I don’t doubt that Craig Thompson knows transportation issues, but there are other qualified people who are not burdened with ethical baggage.
The DOT secretary is responsible for stewarding taxpayer dollars. He or she will represent the interests of the state of Wisconsin, its taxpayers and infrastructure users. Craig Thompson has spent his entire career as a lobbyist, promoting what is best for his special interest. His focus has never been on efficiencies, or competition. His allegiance has always been to an industry – not taxpayers.
There is no reason for Evers to taint the debate over transportation and public infrastructure by injecting ethically charged political appointments into the discussion. In the past I have introduced legislation requiring a cooling off period for lawmakers who leave office and enter the lobby corps. While the measure hasn’t passed, there is bipartisan recognition that the revolving door between lucrative special interest jobs and positions of public trust represents a fundamental challenge to good public policy and government transparency. The appointment of Craig Thompson to the DOT presents the exact same ethical problem and is a disappointing start to the Evers administration.
Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Cedarburg) represents the 20th Senate District.