MADISON — The races for Wisconsin secretary of state and state treasurer, which have been stripped of most of their power in recent years, have gathered widespread interest despite renewed efforts by lawmakers who want to eliminate the positions entirely.
The Assembly is scheduled to vote Tuesday on a constitutional amendment that could make Wisconsin one of five states that don’t have a treasurer. But that hasn’t stopped candidates from voicing their ideas about what they would do with the virtually powerless office if elected.
Plans to abolish the secretary of state, too, have support in the Republican-controlled Legislature. Yet more candidates have shown interest in that election than in almost any other statewide race.
“Constitutionally, the state treasurer has the same authority as the attorney general,” said Dan Bohrod, a Madison Democrat running for treasurer. “We are here today simply because the Legislature has chosen not to authorize the treasurer to do much.”
Lawmakers have tried for six consecutive years to have the two offices taken off the books. This year, Rep. Michael Schraa, R-Oshkosh, sponsored a constitutional amendment that would begin the process of eliminating only the treasurer.
Schraa said he wants to address the treasurer and secretary positions separately so as not to confuse voters, who would have the final say on removing positions from the state constitution. Any proposal like Schraa’s must pass two consecutive legislative sessions before going to voters in a referendum.
The Legislature transferred the unclaimed property division, the state treasurer’s last meaningful task, to the Department of Revenue last year.
“Now with that last major duty taken away . . . I don’t know how they can justify four people in the office and a budget of almost a half a million dollars for the treasurer,” Schraa said.
The state has cut the offices’ annual budgets in recent years to about $500,000. That total is down from about $7 million for the state treasurer and $800,000 for the secretary of state in 2010.
Schraa said lawmakers will move to eliminate the secretary of state position starting next year, which has current Secretary of State Doug La Follette on the offensive.
“This is not about me wanting more duties,” La Follette said. “The Republicans keep complaining that La Follette doesn’t have much to do so let’s eliminate the office. Well whose fault is that?”
La Follette, who has held the office almost exclusively since 1974, watched it lose all but four employees and few duties. He will run again this year, and five people have registered so far to challenge him.
Two Republican candidates, Julian Bradley, of La Crosse, and Bill Folk, of Racine, have platforms focused on restoring the office’s power. Rohn Bishop and Jay Schroeder, also Republicans, are running on a call to eliminate the office.
A listed phone number for Constitutional Party candidate Jerry Broitzman, of Milwaukee, could not be found.
“What we have done over the last 40 years is that we’ve taken all the responsibilities of the secretary of state and we’ve moved them into unelected, unaccountable boards that have no voter interaction whatsoever,” Folk said.
The power most frequently associated with the secretary of state’s office, running elections, was given to the non-partisan State Elections Board in the early 1970s and to the Government Accountability Board in the 2000s. Last year, the Legislature stripped the secretary of the power to publish bills.
Candidates have also come out early to sign up for Treasurer Kurt Schuller’s job. Three Democrats from Madison and Republican Scott Feldt, the current deputy treasurer, have declared their candidacies. All want to restore the office’s duties.
Schuller, who was elected in 2010 after promising to work to eliminate the office and serve only one term, said he’s “cautiously optimistic” that the latest attempt would be successful.
But, he said if lawmakers fail to eliminate the office, he wants them to work to restore power to the job that currently requires him only to acting as chair of a public lands board that meets for just 30 minutes a month.
Schuller said the state would be wasting money on future attempts to wipe out the treasurer’s position if this year’s effort fails, and Schraa said he agrees with that.
“If we’re gonna keep it in our constitution, then we should give some of those responsibilities back,” Schraa said. “At this point, I don’t know how you do that because so many things have been so spread out.”
The heads of both offices receive salaries of about $68,500. The state can’t end the elected positions mid-term, so the earliest the offices could be abolished would be January 2019.
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