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Treasurer sworn into office explainer

Matt Adamczyk was sworn in as state treasurer in 2015 after winning election to the post on a pledge to help eliminate it. Now eliminating the treasurer position will be a referendum on the April 3 ballot. 

Wisconsin voters will be asked to decide on Tuesday, April 3, whether to eliminate the office of the state treasurer through an amendment to the state's Constitution. 

The referendum is the last step required to change Wisconsin's Constitution. The amendment has already passed both chambers of the Legislature in bipartisan votes over two consecutive sessions.

The effort to eliminate the state treasurer is not new — the Legislature began voting on elimination as early as 1986 — and is the result of decades of whittling down the office's scope by both political parties. 

If voters approve the amendment, Wisconsin would join five other states that have eliminated the position, including Minnesota, Texas and New York. 

Not much else would change in the administration of state government. The treasurer's seat on the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands would go to the lieutenant governor. That is a change some critics say would bring more direct political influence to the board, which oversees the sale of school and university lands and makes decisions on how to invest the proceeds. 

So how did we get here and what are the details of the vote? Here are some questions and answers. 

What is the amendment and what does it mean? 

Here is the text voters will see on their ballots next week: 

“Elimination of state treasurer. Shall sections 1 and 3 of article VI and sections 7 and 8 of article X of the constitution be amended, and section 17 of article XIV of the constitution be created, to eliminate the office of state treasurer from the constitution and to replace the state treasurer with the lieutenant governor as a member of the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands."

Voters will be asked to choose "yes" or "no." A "yes" vote would eliminate the Constitutional provision for the state treasurer's office, which, according to the Constitution, only has one remaining duty: to sit on the Board of Commissions of Public Lands. The change does not change the role or nature of that board, only the seat currently occupied by the state treasurer. 

Who is against the elimination of the office and why? 

One Republican who previously held the office, Jack Voight, is opposed to its elimination, arguing that it would also remove an important independent fiscal check on state government. 

"The framers of our state Constitution decided that the state treasurer should provide the fiscal checks and balances, separate and apart from the executive and legislative branches of state government. Since 2011, all financial state treasurer duties have been intentionally transferred to the executive branch (department heads appointed by the governor), except for the duties as a member of BCPL," Voight wrote in an op-ed to the Racine Journal Times last week. 

Several Democrats and some liberal advocacy groups also oppose removing the office from the state Constitution. 

“Eliminating the independent State Treasurer wouldn’t just mean Wisconsin would lose its fiscal watchdog, it will also have unintended consequences, like undermining the integrity of state funds that were created to help schools and libraries. The Office of the State Treasurer was created when Wisconsin was still a territory in 1839. It was appointed by the governor then and later enshrined in the state Constitution in 1848 when Wisconsin became a state. Because the Treasurer is not involved in the state budget process run by the Governor and the Legislature, it serves as the ideal custodian to protect the integrity of the funds," said Scot Ross, executive director of One Wisconsin Now. 

But other Democrats, including Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hinz, D-Oshkosh, and former minority leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, have voted to eliminate the office in the past. 

What does the current State Treasurer say about all this? 

Matt Adamczyk, who took office in 2015, ran on a platform to eliminate the office. He has helped usher the amendment through both legislative chambers during his term and says he has continued to systematically downsize the office and eliminate expenses to save taxpayers money. 

"The groups that are working against it are saying they want to keep the office and expand its duties. It is a logical concept, but it's just not reality. The office has been stripped," said Adamczyk, who is running for the 14th Assembly District seat being vacated by Republican Rep. Dale Kooyenga, who is running for the state Senate. 

Fears that eliminating the state treasurer position would also lead to changes in how members of the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands spend money are unwarranted, Adamczyk said. 

"That is factually wrong, a lie," he said. "Some people are kind of confusing it. The critics are making stuff up on it. The fund ... is constitutionally protected. It's in the Constitution, to only go to K-12 public schools. It has to go there. Certainly that is not being changed."

Adamczyk has winnowed the office from three full-time employees when he arrived to none. He says he will return a quarter of his $69,669 annual salary to the state over the course of his term. 

He says he wants to run for the Assembly to find more ways for the government to save taxpayers money. 

"Frankly, I think there is more to do," he said. "To make government more efficient and save more money. I've been working for a long time on things regarding state facilities if they cant go out and lease buildings, we did change that, we passed a bill to make that better."

When were powers stripped from the state treasurer and what were those powers? 

The Legislature began removing the office's powers in 1995 during the Tommy Thompson administration, and continued under Doyle and Walker. Here is a rundown of the acts, courtesy of the Legislative Reference Bureau, which has written a short history of the office. 

1995 Wisconsin Act 27 eliminated the office’s securities section, which had the responsibility of safekeeping securities purchased by the State of Wisconsin Investment Board.

1997 Wisconsin Act 27 transferred the Division of Trust Lands and Investment to the Department of Administration.

2003 Wisconsin Act 33 transferred almost all of the cash management functions of the state treasurer’s office to the Department of Administration. 

2011 Wisconsin Act 32 transferred the College Savings Program and the College Tuition Prepayment Program, known as EdVest, to the Department of Administration. The act also transferred the Local Government Investment Pool and management services functions to the Department of Administration.

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2013 Wisconsin Act 20 transferred the state treasurer’s Unclaimed Property Program to the Department of Revenue.

2015 Wisconsin Act 55 eliminated the position of assistant state treasurer.

From when did the effort to eliminate the office arise? 

Efforts to get rid of the state treasurer have been going on for more than 100 years. 

"Since 1893, there have been sporadic attempts to eliminate the office of the state treasurer. Legislative attempts to eliminate the office were common throughout the 20th century. In the 1970s and 1980s, joint resolutions to eliminate the office were offered in almost every legislative session. In the last 15 years, these efforts have continued with proposed constitutional amendments to eliminate the office of state treasurer during the 2003, 2005, 2011, 2013, and 2015 legislative sessions," according to the Legislative Reference Bureau. 

Are there any notable folks who were state treasurer?

Current assistant deputy of the state Department of Administration, Cathy Zeuske, a Republican, held the office from 1991-1995. She is one of three women who were state treasurer. The others are Democrat Dawn Marie Sass who held the office from 2007-2011 and Republican Dena A. Smith, who died in office. Smith held the office twice, from 1957-1959 after being appointed, and then again from 1961-1968.  

The Wisconsin State Journal and Capital Times newspaper archives have a fat clip file of one state Treasurer, Republican Solomon Levitan, who served in the role for six terms, when it had considerably more influence and visiblity. 

According to his 1940 obituary in The Capital Times, Levitan, was a "leader of the Progressive movement for more than half a century."

Levitan was an immigrant from then-East Prussia, now Lithuania. He came to the U.S. in 1880 and then worked on a farm in Baltimore while saving up enough money to become an itinerant merchant. He sold goods from a horse and wagon across the country and eventually settled in New Glarus before moving to Madison where he ran for office.  

Referred to as "Uncle Sol," Levitan was a beloved leader in the Jewish community, genial, well-respected and well-known as the state treasurer.

"He was better known to Wisconsin citizens than most contemporary political figures because as Uncle Sol, he was always genial," according to a 1940 article in the Cap Times about his funeral, in which 1,800 people attended in the state Capitol. 

Where can I get more information about where or how to vote on April 3? 

The state Elections Commission has all the details here

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Katelyn Ferral is The Cap Times' public affairs and investigative reporter. She joined the paper in 2015 and previously covered the energy industry for the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. She's also covered state politics and government in North Carolina.