MADISON, WIS. — Walk into Wisconsin and you've just entered one of the nation's biggest labora-tories for social reform. This state is something of a petri dish for plans and programs geared at solving every social ill - from reforming welfare to saving schools.
It's always been that way here. Wisconsin was home to the nation's first kindergarten, its first workers' compensation program, and its first unemployment insurance.
The innovative spirit springs from many residents' bedrock belief that government must tackle society's problems. It's a long way from that get-government-off-my-back conservatism in Western and Southern states.
But Wisconsin's can-do liberalism has become more conservative of late. The state used to view government's role as protecting people from harm. Now - as evident in welfare-to-work programs, for instance - it is seen as helping them determine their own future.
This is new territory for America's innovation state - and it may portend changes in the way the nation deals with social problems.
"Wisconsin is in the nation's eye," says Melanie Smith, editor of State Net Capitol Journal in Sacramento, Calif. "It's getting big attention for social programs - even though it's not yet clear whether some of them are working."
Numerous big ideas are bubbling in Wisconsin today.
*For more than a decade, Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson has been America's chief welfare-reform architect - pushing to get recipients from dependence to independence. It's the most striking example of the philosophical about-face in a state whose leaders once championed things like workers' comp and bank regulations to protect citizens.
Governor Thompson's vision is self-sufficiency, even if, as critics say, it risks leaving some unprotected. But, with the work requirement now in place, he is adding a liberal twist - calling for bigger spending to help former welfare recipients transition to work.
*Thompson's new BadgerCare system is one of the first in the nation that aims to give health care to the working poor. He reasons it will keep them self-sufficient and help prevent them from falling onto welfare rolls.
*Determining one's own destiny is also the aim of Milwaukee's pioneering - but controversial - school-voucher program. Today 15,000 students from lower-income families get a $5,000 voucher every year.
They can spend it at any city school, including religious ones. Critics say it is siphoning resources away from public schools. Supporters counter it's creating healthy competition among public and private schools.
*Most metropolitan mayors have plans to build big projects. Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist (D) has a grand plan for some serious deconstruction.
In the biggest project of its kind in the nation, he wants to spend $20 million to rip down a half-built highway that was headed through the middle of his city. He says highways are responsible for carving up cities and initiating commuter flight.
*If a campaign-finance bill now in the state's legislature becomes law, it would make Wisconsin the second state in the nation, behind Vermont, to institute public financing of political campaigns.
In the handful of other states with public financing, voters have created it through ballot initiatives - often over the implicit objection of elected leaders.
So where does Wisconsin's will to innovate come from?
Most Wisconsinites trace it to the orderly, rational German and Scandinavian immigrants who looked to an efficient government for problem-solving.
They fostered a "moralistic political culture," says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. "Politics was about abstract principles," he says, and it was government's responsibility to put them into practice.
That's seen today in the campaign-finance bill. The principle is rooting out corruption, and the state's elected officials are moving toward the task.
At the turn of the century, this moralistic culture gave rise to the state's most famous politician: "Fighting Bob" LaFollete. As a Republican governor and a long-time US senator, he championed protections for workers, bank customers, even seamen. His work set the stage for the government expansion that would become the New Deal.
Back in Wisconsin, this protection-minded sentiment gave rise to the Socialist Party, known as "sewer Socialists," because of their focus on practical services. The common good was served by expanding things like sewers, water, and power, their rationale went.
As recently as 1960, Milwaukee had a Socialist mayor. This practical-minded attitude has spawned many of Wisconsin's innovations.
But the emphasis on practicality has made for some curious politics. Mayor Norquist, for instance, is a Democrat. Most Democrats decry school vouchers. He champions them.
Thompson, a Republican, admits to sounding surprisingly liberal as he pushes for stepped-up social spending for former welfare recipients.
But as long as the officials remain practical, most voters are content to let them stay. In 1993, when contaminated drinking water in Milwaukee was blamed for 400,000 people becoming ill, no officials lost their jobs. Voters expected the government to fix the problem.
Now Milwaukee is considered to have one of the most advanced drinking-water purification systems in the nation. "There's just not a throw-the-bums-out mentality," says Jeff Fleming, an aide to Mayor Norquist.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society