Q&A: Retiring WPRI chief George Lightbourn reflects on how politics have …

After 22 years in state government, including serving as Department of Administration secretary under Govs. Tommy Thompson and Scott McCallum, then another 10 years with the conservative think tank Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, George Lightbourn is ready to step back from the public realm.

Lightbourn, 62, will retire as president of WPRI in June to spend more time with his family in Monona — whether his wife, Kathy, “wants me home or not,” he jokes. The couple already has several trips scheduled, including a visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. where Lightbourn can reaffirm that his beloved Chicago Cubs have not won a World Series since 1906. They have also booked a tour of art museums in northern Europe that features a trip to St. Petersburg, Russia.

Lightbourn grew up in Madison and attended the University of Wisconsin, where he earned a master’s degree in public administration. His career with the state began in the budget office at the Wisconsin Department of Transportation in 1977.

During his years in state government, Lightbourn was closely involved in putting together biennual $60 billion budgets. Following the election of Gov. Jim Doyle in 2002, Lightbourn moved on to WPRI but stayed involved with public policy debates.

A private nonprofit headquartered in Hartland, WPRI is overseen by a board that includes heavyweights like its chairman, Jim Klauser, a longtime adviser to Gov. Thompson and past executive with Wisconsin Energy Corp.; Tom Howatt, chairman of Wausau Paper Corp.; David Lubar, president of Lubar Co. private investments; and Maureen Oster, a pioneering female Wisconsin fund manager.

Founded in 1987, WPRI, which bills itself as a “free-market” think tank, has come under fire from liberals. The group makes no bones about its conservative roots but maintains its work is non-partisan.

The Capital Times: You came out of a political environment where, even if two legislators disagreed, they still might share drinks at a local watering hole after work or play a round of golf. How has that changed?

George Lightbourn: Politics have always been divisive but here is how I think it’s different today: There was a Democratic legislator who recently said some very unkind things publicly about one of the polls we produced at WPRI. So I did what I historically did, which was call her up and say “let’s go get a cup of coffee.” I’d had disagreements in the past with Tammy Baldwin or Mark Pocan or Jon Erpenbach but at least we could always sit down and talk with them and iron out the situation or at least understand some things we agreed on. But her response was “we have nothing to talk about.” I told this story to an insider at the Capitol and they said “George, that’s just how it is these days.” But back when I was at DOA and we were negotiating budgets I’d have (former legislative leaders) John Gard and Chuck Chvala over to my house. I’m not sure you could do that anymore.

Whatever happened to the political middle?

One problem is you’ve got these safe districts where an elected official is only vulnerable to attacks from their own party from either the far left or far right. That forces them to take even more extreme positions. So the people we end up sending to Madison or to Washington are increasingly moving to the edges of political thought.

Good point. Wisconsin has one of the most liberal U.S. senators in Tammy Baldwin and also one of the most conservative in Ron Johnson.

I could sound like a dinosaur and talk about the halcyon days when there were these social relationships that transcended political philosophy but that just isn’t how it is anymore.

Unfortunately, the alternative to moderation is making sure you have control of the entire building. In Madison right now, the Democrats are waiting for their time when they can have the East Wing and both the West and South wings of the Capitol so they get their policies enacted.

So things will swing back in the Democrats’ favor?

Politics are always cyclical and anybody who doesn’t understand that isn’t paying very close attention.

As somebody who spent most of their career in government, what are your thoughts about all the public worker bashing that went on with Act 10? That seems like the winning issue for Republicans these days, running against liberal Madison.

I don’t know if it is running against government but rather running on changing government. At WPRI, we dug into this issue and found that people supported what was being done because there was a real need to balance the budget. So the fact the budget did balance two years ago was an incredibly hopeful sign for Wisconsin. Hopefully they can balance it again.

Won’t that depend on getting the economy going?

Well, either that or making some more hard decisions.

Tell us more about your time with WPRI. It has certainly been a lightening rod, especially over the past two years.

The first thing I want to say is that there is belief on the left that WPRI is beholden and pays close attention to and is driven by the Koch brothers and the Bradley Foundation. But that simply isn’t true. We have never gotten any money from the Koch brothers and never asked for any. We do get good funding from Bradley but on my watch I can honestly say Bradley has never once tried to direct any research. If fact, it’s just the opposite. They end up asking me what WPRI might have on the horizon.

Quite frankly, our board and our chairman would not allow it. We are fiercely non-partisan because the board demands it.

Isn’t the entire board made up of Republicans?

I don’t believe that is true.

Sure, we have a conservative orientation but the research is the research. We publish everything that we do. When I hire an author to do a study for us, they put their name on it. Everything we do is peer-reviewed. We do believe in free-market solutions to problems but our polling is not skewed. Like the poll we shared with you recently about people in Wisconsin still supporting strong environmental regulations. We’ve done polling on gay marriage and we published the fact that more people support gay marriage in Wisconsin than oppose it.

Yes, we have advocated based on our research for things like school choice or charter schools but we have also advocated for growth of early childhood education based on the research we’ve done.

If not your donors, then who decides what topics to pursue?

The board. We talk about it and decide who can do the research. We just published a study on disruptive students and what effect that has on the general student population. Is that liberal or conservative? I hear all the time from parents and teachers that it’s hard to get teaching methods across when you have disruptive students. It’s a huge problem.

The State Journal ran the story last week about the move toward private schools in Dane County. This is what school choice is about. If you have the means, you are able to make that choice to take your kid out of a public school and move them somewhere else and in Milwaukee they do have choice and they have exercised that choice

But the outcomes aren’t any better for public vs. private schools or charter schools.

You do have to squint to see the difference, although I think the outcomes are more pronounced at the high school level, where kids in choice schools tend to graduate. But when you talk to the parents, they aren’t so much driven by test results; they are driven by safety of the kid, the caring environment, the learning environment, so you can’t just dismiss that.

If all the concerned parents send their kids to private schools won’t that just leave the worst kids in the public schools?

If the public schools do not change, that scenario might occur. However, public schools can and do change. For example, Milwaukee Public Schools have 4,500 students in non-union charter schools and that seems to be working.