July 16, 2013
by James Wigderson
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute
In 1952, my grandfather Mort Wigderson ran for Secretary of State against incumbent Fred Zimmerman. The Waukesha Freeman’s “Under the Capitol Dome” described the contest, “The office is scarcely a vital one. The habit of voting for Zimmerman is a strong one, after a generation.”
The Waukesha Freeman wondered why Wisconsin was having an election at all for Secretary of State.
“The fact is, although it is rarely discussed with any candor, that this office and the state treasurer’s office are losing public interest and awareness. …The paucity of candidates for this and other offices reveals their diminishing importance and suggests, perhaps, that some day the legislature will recognize reality and abolish them altogether.”
Since that was written sixty years ago, the state legislature has reduced the importance of the offices even further, preferring to consolidate many of their duties within the executive branch under the governor.
Perhaps the state legislature is finally ready to get rid of the two constitutional offices. A proposed constitutional amendment by State Rep. Tyler August and State Rep. Michael Schraa would get rid of the secretary of state and the state treasurer.
The amendment would have to pass two sessions of the state legislature before going to referendum. The earliest the amendment could go to referendum is April, 2015.
The current legislature has already continued the trend of diminishing the two offices. The state treasurer lost control over unclaimed property. Before that, the legislature took away the Edvest Fund. The only responsibility left to the state treasurer is to sit on the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands, a task the current incumbent told WisPolitics takes two fifteen-minute phone calls a month.
The secretary of state, who also sits on the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands, has few duties left. What’s left to the position is “keep a fair record of the official acts of the legislature and executive department of the state,” and, “keep the great seal of Wisconsin.”
As far as keeping the seal, it was temporarily lost in 1976 on Secretary of State Doug La Follette’s watch when it was sent out for repair. An aide to then-Governor Patrick Lucey damaged the seal while using it, causing the state to send it via UPS to Chicago. The box arrived damaged and empty. At the time, the seal was valued at $350.
La Follete’s office took a more recent knock to its reputation when it delayed publication of Act 10 to allow more school districts to enter into contracts with unions before the law’s limits on collective bargaining could take effect. That discretion is now gone.
Despite the lack of responsibility, the constitution puts the secretary in the line of succession in the event of vacancies in the offices of governor and lieutenant governor. Under the proposed amendment, the state attorney general would take that responsibility.
Meanwhile, the state treasurer’s office has also had some damage to its reputation. In 2006 during the Democratic sweep, a little-known department store clerk and Democratic activist Dawn Marie Sass defeated the incumbent Jack Voight. During Sass’ term in office, charges of incompetence and nepotism led to calls for the office to be abolished.
Republican Kurt Schuller won on a promise to lobby the legislature to eliminate the position. Schuller has called for getting rid of the state treasurer position, even as he and his staff have fought legislative efforts to remove responsibilities from the office. (By the way, why does the office have a spokesperson?)
The state treasurer’s staff claims the office is not funded by the taxpayers. However, this is too-clever misdirection. The office is funded by interest money from the unclaimed property fund. While it’s not general purpose revenue, it’s still state money that could be spent on other purposes.
In recent interviews, La Follette has said that there is confusion for businesses coming to Wisconsin to try to figure out what part of government is currently doing some of the secretary of state’s responsibilities. By eliminating his position, Wisconsin would certainly reduce the confusion.
Neither the state treasurer nor the secretary of state has major policy responsibilities. The remaining administrative duties could easily be absorbed into other parts of state government, eliminating the redundancies and extra staff. Meanwhile, taxpayers and local governments would be spared the expense of elections for near-meaningless government offices.
The public has had even more good reasons to lose interest in the secretary of state and state treasurer positions since the Waukesha Freeman column in 1952 questioned the need for them. Perhaps now is the time for the legislature to finally listen.