WAUKESHA, Wis. — The Wisconsin Senate voted 18-15 Tuesday to amend the state constitution to get rid of the state treasurer position.
For an amendment to be successful, it has to pass each chamber of the state Legislature in consecutive sessions and then be approved by the voters in a referendum. If the amendment passes in the state Assembly as it did last session, voters will decide in a referendum in the spring 2018 election the fate of the state treasurer position.
The Assembly is expected to act on the amendment Thursday.
“There won’t be another election for state treasurer if this is successful,” State Treasurer Matt Adamczyk said in an interview Tuesday after the vote.
Adamczyk was elected in November 2014 on a promise to eliminate the position whose duties have gradually been stripped away and given to other agencies.
“I’m very optimistic,” Adamczyk said about Thursday’s vote. “We should have plenty of votes.”
Two Republicans, Sens. Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield, and Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls, voted with the Democrats to keep the position.
”I have concerns with eliminating a constitutional office that has the potential to be an effective, impartial watchdog on budgetary matters,” Kapenga said in a statement after the vote. “My preference would be to strengthen the position, versus eliminate it.”
That echoed what Democrats were saying during the floor debate on the constitutional amendment.
“The state treasurer used to do something,” said state Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton. “The legislature in the past has taken away the duties. That doesn’t make the office obsolete by any means.”
State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma, said the Legislature should “fix” the state treasurer position rather than abolish it.
“Let’s make some decisions on what this role should be,” Vinehout said. “Let’s make it real and let’s protect the people’s money.”
However, Sen. Dan Feyen, R-Fond du Lac, said the position of state treasurer no longer serves a purpose, saying that the duties are now performed by the Department of Administration and the Department of Revenue.
“The one remaining duty of this office is sitting on the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands,” Feyen said. “This resolution transfers that seat to the lieutenant governor who is also publicly elected, a constitutional officer, therefore upholding the will of our founding fathers that citizens elect those that manage public lands.”
During the debate, Erpenbach said Adamczyk would be rewarded after the state treasurer position is eliminated.
“I have no doubt that our current state treasurer is going to get a great state job somewhere out of this after this office is eliminated,” Erpenbach said. “And if I’m wrong, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m wrong, but my guess is he’s got a pretty soft landing place to go to that the taxpayers are going to pay for.”
Erpenbach’s office did not respond to a request for additional comment about a job. However, Adamczyk denied that he’s been promised any job after the state treasurer position is eliminated.
“I have no cushy job lined up from anyone, so I have no idea what he’s referring to,” Adamczyk said.
As for restoring the duties to the office, Adamczyk said the movement has been in the opposite direction since the 1990s, “even before Governor Walker, including Governor Doyle, including Governor Thompson.”
“Nothing has been brought over and given to this office. Things have been taken away,” Adamczyk said. “ … It wasn’t meant to be punitive. The duties mesh well with other agencies.”
Adamczyk gave the example of the responsibility of handling unclaimed property, which is now handled by the Department of Revenue. Adamczyk said it’s an administrative job, not a political one. If it’s not being handled correctly, the person running it can be fired rather than waiting for the next election.
Former state Treasurer Jack Voight, reached Tuesday afternoon, was very upset with the news the state Senate voted to eliminate the office. Voight served from 1995 until 2007. He narrowly lost re-election in 2006 to Dawn Marie Sass, a Boston Store clerk and AFSCME union activist.
“Oh, God,” Voight said when contacted with the news. “I plan to fight this to the bitter end saying they have abandoned the checks and balances put in place by our state constitutional committee back in 1848.”
Voight said opponents of the amendment will make the case to the public to undo “the injustice” done by the Senate vote. “This isn’t over yet,” Voight said.
Voight also said this was about controlling the money at the Common School Fund, which is controlled by the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands. The current members are the state attorney general, the Wisconsin secretary of state and the state treasurer. The amendment would replace the state treasurer on the board with the lieutenant governor.
“Then they’ll attack [Secretary of State] Doug LaFollette and move another Walker appointee or department head of some sort,” Voight said. “So then they’ll control the money.”
Voight said the money will then be sent to private, even parochial, schools instead of to public schools.
Adamczyk disagreed with Voight that the money could ever be spent that way.
“It has to go to K-12 public schools. It’s in the state constitution,” Adamczyk said. “Anyone that serves on the board, whether it’s the lieutenant governor or the attorney general, they’re going to want to do their fiduciary job to make sure the fund is managed well to make money to give back to the schools.”
James Wigderson reports for Wisconsin Watchdog. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @jwigderson.