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Wisconsin in the 1st half of the 20th century


Gaylord Nelson governor
Gaylord Nelson governor

Wisconsin became a Republican state before the Civil War. After 1904 the direct primary allowed the Progressives to split the Republican Party between Progressive Republicans and Stalwarts. Progressive Republicans dominated Wisconsin politics for many years.

A resurgence of the Democratic Party began in the late 1940s, and in 1958 a Democrat, Gaylord Nelson, was elected governor, the first Democratic governor since 1932. Since then competition between the two parties has been greater than ever before in state history. In 1964, for the first time since 1892, the Democratic Party won all statewide offices and control of both houses of the legislature. In 1994 the Republicans resumed legislative control. The governor’s office has been split almost evenly between the two parties since 1959, and on the whole governors have been moderates.

In recent decades most state issues have not been clearly partisan, and most voting blocs have not been fixed. Republicans reflect the views of business and professional people and the suburbs, while the Democrats represent labor and the cities. Both have areas of strength in rural and farm areas, with Republicans stronger among the wealthier farmers, but each party needs support from unpredictable independent voters to win.

The most persistent issues, ones often crossing party lines, have involved taxes and state financial aid. Since the Progressive Era, the state had used the graduated personal and corporate income tax it pioneered in 1911 and an inheritance tax, while local government depended on property taxes.

After World War II, state spending grew, requiring more revenue, and a selective state sales tax was adopted. The income and sales taxes produced enough money that the state became more generous, with a variety of state aid programs for local governments that depended largely on property taxes. By the 1980s, as local governments were pressed to expand commitments, bipartisan support grew for property tax relief. In the mid-1990s the legislature approved a measure pledging that the state would cover two-thirds of the overall cost of local education, beginning in 1997.

University of Wisconsin
University of Wisconsin

Starting in the Progressive Era and the 1930s, the state has had a reputation for high taxes, heavy spending, and regulation of business. Since about 1970 the trend has been reversed by efforts to hold down or reduce the cost of government; to turn over some government functions, such as auto-emission testing, to private contractors; to reduce the regulatory role of the state; and to involve the state directly in economic expansion through tax changes, subsidies, and an aggressive search for business expansion. The legislature has also expanded the concept of Cabinet government to widen the governor’s role in such economic intervention, a contrast to the state’s Progressive tradition of strong, independent state agencies. Other major issues have included welfare reform, gun control, abortion restrictions, and control of crime and drugs.

Republican Governor Tommy Thompson advocated major changes in welfare that attracted national attention. From 1987 to 1995, under Thompson’s administration, Wisconsin’s welfare rolls were cut significantly, and programs were established to link parents’ welfare grants to their children’s school attendance. In 1996 Wisconsin passed a law aimed at ending welfare and putting recipients to work. The law abolished welfare payments by late 1997 but created Wisconsin Works (W2), a system of programs to help residents find jobs and assist them with childcare, transportation, and housing. Other states looked to W2 in devising their own welfare reforms.

Wisconsin was the first state to ratify the women’s suffrage amendment to the Constitution of the United States in 1919, but women’s rise to political prominence has lagged. By the early 21st century, no woman had yet been elected governor or U.S. senator, although many women served in the state legislature, on local legislative bodies, and as mayors of smaller municipalities. Women have held major non-elective positions in state and federal service, in the universities, and as chief executives of several major Wisconsin corporations. State higher education in the first half of the 20th century was limited to the University of Wisconsin in Madison and a system of ten state teachers colleges.

The university gained a national reputation for the social and natural sciences and for two extension systems serving the public statewide. Changes beginning in 1951 led to a merger creating the University of Wisconsin system in 1971, with 13 major campuses and about 150,000 students governed by a single board of regents. "Wisconsin" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia.

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