Sarah Godlewski led the fight to retain the office of state treasurer when former Gov. Scott Walker and his Republican cronies were trying to eliminate it, and when most Democrats couldn’t be bothered to step up.
Godlewski did this not as a politician but as a finance expert who recognized the importance of maintaining an independent watchdog on the state’s finances and who also recognized the enormous potential of the treasurer’s position.
In the spring of 2018, the people of Wisconsin signaled that they were in agreement with Godlewski. A proposed constitutional amendment that would have eliminated the treasurer’s office — which was enthusiastically backed by Walker, state legislators and a number of media outlets — lost by an overwhelming margin.
Sixty-two percent of the voters in the April election signaled that they wanted to keep the position. And no serious observer imagined that the people wanted simply to keep the treasurer’s job on the list of the state’s constitutional offices.
They wanted an actual state treasurer, with the powers that were traditionally associated with the office. After years of seeing the office diminished and dismantled by successive Legislatures — so that the primary remaining duty of the occupant of the office was to sit with the secretary of state and the attorney general on the three-member Board of Commissioners of Public Lands — the voters were signaling that they wanted more than just a caretaker position.
Godlewski recognized this fact and ran for the post. As a first-time candidate, she campaigned with an ambitious agenda that proposed to make the treasurer a robust watchdog over financial transactions involving taxpayer dollars with an eye toward providing accountability and transparency. She proposed to use state trust fund money “to help address the student loan crisis, by paying off debts and refinancing them at a lower rate that still provides an attractive return for the state.”
Godlewski told voters, “The treasurer should be your champion in the fight against financial exploitation. Seniors, veterans, and vulnerable communities across our state have been taken advantage of for too long.” She outlined her belief that “the Treasurer’s Office should partner with organizations working with seniors to implement fraud prevention and response programs.” And she said, “The Treasurer’s Office must also be a consumer advocate, taking action against large banks and institutions that abuse their power to take advantage of customers and taxpayers.”
Once again, the voters sided with Godlewski and her view of the Office of the State Treasurer. She won a crowded Democratic primary and was elected in November.
That should have been a pivot point for Wisconsin. Instead, it was the beginning of a struggle that remains unresolved six months after the election.
Godlewski is ready to serve, yet, as she explains, “I walked into my office for the first time on January 6 of this year. The office did not have internet, the phones were disconnected and cords were hanging from the ceiling. I was, and still am, the only employee in this statewide office with a total budget of $113,500. There is no excuse for this wanton neglect of our state’s chief fiscal watchdog."
Godlewski is not asking for special favors or unwarranted funding. She reminds us, “The Office of the State Treasurer is self-funded, operating on revenue generated by programs supported or administered by the office. And while today there are millions of dollars of program revenue for the office, we cannot access this money to rebuild and carry out our responsibilities. Why? Because access to even a dollar of these funds requires legislative approval.”
This should be an easy choice for the Legislature. But that has not been the case.
Even after hundreds of Wisconsinites petitioned legislators to clear the way for an expansion of the Office of the State Treasurer, the Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee rejected even a modest proposal to do so. Showing no respect for the office or the will of the people, the budget committee literally stripped our treasurer’s budget request from consideration.
“This is unacceptable,” said Godlewski. “Wisconsinites made it clear that they believe in a strong state treasurer.”
The elected treasurer is not giving up, and neither should the voters of Wisconsin.
Noting that there is more than a month to go in formal budget deliberations, Godlewski said, “There’s time, and we’re not done fighting. So, please, call your local legislator and tell them to fund the Office of the State Treasurer. We need to make sure that we have a strong fiscal voice!”
Wisconsin does, indeed, need the strong fiscal voice that Godlewski was elected to provide. So it is time to step up.
Gov. Tony Evers should make the restoration of the Treasurer’s Office one of his priorities in budget negotiations. Democratic legislators, who are generally sympathetic to Godlewski’s request, should speak up. Voters should reach out to legislators of both parties, but especially to Republicans, and deliver a message that they want a fully functioning and fully funded Office of the State Treasurer.
The Capital Times has long advocated for strengthening both the Office of the State Treasurer and the Office of the Secretary of State. This is a moment when progress can be made. But it will only happen if Wisconsinites demand action with calls to legislators at 608-266-9960 or 1-800-362-9472.
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. His many-greats-grandfather, Abner Nichols, was the territorial treasurer of Wisconsin. firstname.lastname@example.org and @NicholsUprising.
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