Gov. Jim Doyle said Wednesday the economic recession made 2009 his most challenging year in office, but Wisconsin responded well by helping the unemployed and positioning itself for recovery.
In a year-end interview at the governor's residence, Doyle said the hardest part was watching people struggle after losing jobs through no fault of their own.
"There's just no doubt for ordinary people living in Wisconsin or in any state, 2009 was a very tough year," Doyle said. "But in very, very tough times, I'm proud of how Wisconsin responded. It wasn't just me as governor or the people in politics. It was business people ... it was local officials."
The recession sent unemployment levels skyrocketing in many Wisconsin communities and left a multibillion-dollar hole in the state budget. Doyle and lawmakers responded by raising taxes on some large corporations and the wealthy while furloughing state employees for 16 days over 2 years, among other difficult steps.
Doyle, a Democrat first elected in 2002, also made the decision to leave office in 2010 and not run for a third four-year term, a decision he said he regrets on many days.
Doyle, 64, said Wisconsin stood up for the jobless by extending their unemployment benefits, expanding health care programs for the low-income, and enrolling a record number of students in the University of Wisconsin System.
He said tax incentives approved by the Legislature helped convince several companies to stay or expand their operations in Wisconsin, keeping the state in a good position for growth when the economy rebounds.
He said the new incentives helped Mercury Marine stay and add jobs in Fond du Lac instead of relocating to Oklahoma, convinced Republic Airways to add hundreds of jobs in Milwaukee and helped Oshkosh Truck become more competitive for federal grants. Eight biotechnology companies have announced plans in recent months to locate here, he said.
"We had a whole string of significant victories of businesses that were making decisions on where to locate or consolidate that have chosen Wisconsin," he said.
Working with a Democratic-controlled Legislature for the first time in 2009, Doyle said he was able to enact several pieces of legislation he had championed for years. They included laws that will make Wisconsin bars and restaurants smoke-free starting next year and that will require insurance companies to cover treatment for autistic children.
In his last year in office, Doyle said he will continue promoting a new economy around clean energy and energy conservation and hopes to make progress bringing high-speed rail to Wisconsin. He said it was possible he would have to make additional budget cuts early next year if tax collections do not meet projections.
Doyle said he continues to struggle with his decision to leave office after two terms.
"There are days I really regret it. I love the job. There are so many things we have under way, so many things where I think, gee, if it's just another few years, I can see these through to completion," he said. "But I do think it was the right decision."