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John Nichols: Empower the state treasurer

John Nichols: Empower the state treasurer


Sarah Godlewski speaks during an early vote rally at UW-Madison Oct. 30.

The voters of Wisconsin sent two clear signals in 2018 about the state treasurer’s post. In April, they overwhelmingly rejected a proposed constitutional amendment that would have eliminated it. Then on Nov. 6 they filled the position with the state’s most ardent advocate for realizing its full potential: Sarah Godlewski.

So let’s review:

Signal One: Voters want an elected state treasurer. Defeated Gov. Scott Walker and his cronies argued that getting rid of the position would promote efficiency and save tax dollars. But the people of Wisconsin indicated they were more than happy to cover the cost of the position, and that they were interested in renewing its watchdog authority.

Signal Two: Voters want an activist treasurer who has big ideas about using the position to address major issues. During the 2018 campaign, Godlewski was blunt about her desire to get the office engaged on everything from reducing student debt to promoting fair lending practices to economic development. She also talked about getting the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands — on which the treasurer sits with the secretary of state and the attorney general — focused on respecting scientific studies and expert advice regarding land use and climate change, and on making sound investments in libraries and technology for public schools and communities, infrastructure, economic development and public safety projects.

Throughout 2018, as an advocate for saving the office and then as a candidate to fill it, Godlewski made her agenda clear, and she won support for it.

Now, outgoing Gov. Scott Walker, Gov.-elect Tony Evers and members of the Legislature should recognize the mandate Godlewski will bring to this office when she is sworn in this January.

Instead of making partisan moves to limit the powers of the governorship — as Republican legislative leaders have proposed now that a Democrat is taking the position — the focus should be on strengthening the position of treasurer.

Any effort to reform or rearrange state government must respect the will of the voters as framed by the 2018 campaign and its results. There was no serious debate about disempowering the governor. But there was a robust debate about empowering the treasurer.

Sufficient resources and staffing assistance should be made available for Godlewski to develop proposals for renewing the position to which she has been elected. These proposals should be entertained seriously by members of the executive and legislative branches. The budgeting process, which will begin with the new year, offers an opportunity to respect the will of the people by restoring cash management responsibilities and other historic duties to the office.

Renewing and expanding the duties of the treasurer’s office may take some time. But some creative steps could be taken quickly. For instance, if any steps are taken to reorganize the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. board, shouldn’t the elected state treasurer be included in the process — and perhaps on the board? That would put the treasurer on the watchdog beat, which is precisely where the voters want her.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. and @NicholsUprising. 

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