If the website is any indication, the Wisconsin State Treasurer’s office has seen better days.
In 1930, the treasurer maintained the custody of all state funds, received money paid to the state treasury, issued checks, directly collected taxes and withdrew funds from the state treasury. But the 1990s ushered in an effort to restructure the duties of the office.
In 1995, the legislature and Gov. Tommy Thompson eliminated the section of the office charged with safeguarding state securities. Two years later, the Division of Trust Lands and Investment was transferred to the Department of Administration. The office’s cash management functions were handed to DOA in 2003. Act 32, passed by the GOP-dominated legislature in 2011, transferred both the Local Government Investment Pool and EdVest, the state’s college savings programs, to DOA as well. Notice the pattern?
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In the last 25 years, the office has gone from a twenty-three-member staff and a budget of $4.4 million to a budget under $250,000 and a staff of just one — the treasurer.
Last April, 62 percent of Wisconsin voters rejected a referendum that would have done away with the State Treasurer’s office altogether and given its only remaining duty — sitting on the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands — to the Lieutenant Governor. The three-member board, which includes the state’s Attorney General and Secretary of State, has existed since Wisconsin’s territorial days to manage and sell Wisconsin’s Trust Lands, the proceeds of which finance public education.
The referendum was the latest in a decades-long push by Wisconsin legislators and governors to transfer the office’s duties to other state agencies or eliminate them entirely — a crusade to take financial powers from an elected official and give them to the executive branch. To the outgoing treasurer, Matt Adamczyk, the removal of the office would have been a “symbolic victory for smaller government.”
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Treating the office like this isn’t normal. According to the Wisconsin Taxpayer’s Alliance, most state treasurers are relatively powerful — stripping the office of substantial powers and giving them to agencies controlled by the governor isn’t some well-documented practice. Wisconsin is the only state not to place its treasurer in charge of cash management and “only North Dakota’s and Wisconsin’s treasurers are not responsible for their states’ banking services.”
It’s abnormal because wresting powers from an elected office violates a deeply-held commitment to a system of checks and balances. It isn’t that the government gets “smaller” when powers are taken from one office, they just go to a different part of government, in this case the executive. This puts the four main operations of public finance — taxation, budgeting, spending and accounting — under one branch’s purview. To Godlewski, “that’s a huge violation of internal controls” — a huge violation of checks and balances.
It may be moving the treasurer’s functions to state agencies or bipartisan bureaus improves efficiency, but there’s evidence the executive will not hold itself accountable for financial mismanagement.
The intentional overpayment of a Department of Transportation contractor, uncovered through an investigation by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and the nearly $600,000 in erroneous state Medicaid payments found during a federal audit means Wisconsin needs the press and the feds to figure out how its money is being used. It shouldn’t be that way. The public needs an elected treasurer, with control of cash management and authority over banking services, who can be held directly accountable for their management of public finances.
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It’s been suggested that the responsibilities of the office be not only restored but expanded. The treasurer could deserve a board seat on the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, the public-private entity mired by corruption and malfeasance. The office, once staffed and funded properly, should work with the Legislature to craft tax policy or make fiscal decisions.
When voters decided to keep the state treasurer and elect Treasurer Godlewski, they did so not because of what the office is now, but because of what it has been — and what it can and ought to be. This schism, between what the public wants for the office and what previous legislatures and governors have done to it, is a political disagreement about who should control Wisconsin’s finances and how insulated from accountability they should be.
Wisconsin cast its ballot for public accountability and control. Now both should be demanded.
Sam Ropa ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in geography and anthropology.