Lessons for today from an exemplary life of service

by Todd Berry President Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance

The death of a friend or loved one brings a rush of emotions: sorrow, grief, emptiness, even relief. But I never thought of it as a teachable moment until the recent passing of James R. Morgan, former president of the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance.

Except for six years as the state’s chief tax official, Mr. Morgan,as his staff always called him, dedicated his entire professional career to the nonpartisan WTA, including 23 years as president. Spanning six decades, his contributions to the civic life of Wisconsin were innumerable and significant.

A reporter in the mid-80s observed that “... not many elective offices would significantly increase Morgan’s current influence in Wisconsin.” Echoed another: “If the legislature or governor set up a special government study group without inviting WTA President Morgan to participate, the entire statehouse establishment would be surprised.”

For those who knew him as devoted father and grandfather, mentor, or advisor, Jim Morgan.s passing was a personal loss. But what is also sad about his death is its painful reminder that Wisconsin government and politics have changed since his retirement more than 20 years ago.

Destructive partisanship. Recent UW research on state leg- islative voting reveals a hostile, tribal environment with no neutral zone where members can reach consensus. Party positions are hardened; party discipline is enforced; and deviance is punished. Even cross-party socializing is discouraged.

This is not the legislature Jim Morgan knew nor the example he set. Morgan steadfastly refused to serve the agenda of any politician or group, one journalist noted. Another reminded that he never declared a partisan affiliation. Indeed, valuing his expertise, governors of both parties asked him to serve in a variety of advisory capacities.

Careerist politics. One factor in the emergence of partisan, “take-no-prisoners” politics is the nature of the job. For many lawmakers, it is now full-time with benefits, covered expenses, staff, and office budgets to match. This has placed the fate of individual legislators in the hands of party leaders with the power to choose committee chairs and members, schedule bills, and even control campaign funds and workers.

Jim Morgan long ago understood the downside of a full-time, professional legislature. In a 1986 interview, he lamented that young state lawmakers lacked sympathy for the problems of local town, city and county governments. “Its because of a lack of understanding,” he explained, “They’ve never gone through it.”

Defer and deny. Recently, Capitol observers have worried that Wisconsin is unable to address major problems. Long-term slowing of economic growth, reliable funding of state roads, state fiscal stability, school finance, and higher education reform are examples. State politics have become too poisonously partisan and ambition-driven to act.

Jim Morgan’s life suggests a better path. “Jim isn’t usually espousing a point of view. He kind of leads people into reaching an agreement,” one legislative agency head recalled. Or, as Morgan once told a reporter: “I see things in a factual, pragmatic way, which isn’t necessarily a political way.”

In today’s politics where handlers teach that truth is plastic and winning elections is all that matters, the ultimate lesson Jim Morgan leaves us is about character. He was often described as humble, honest, generous, witty, professional and civicminded. What the Milwaukee Journal said in 1993 still applies: “Would that there were more like him around.” Amen. May we all be more like Jim Morgan.


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