Many Wisconsin voters do not care about electing a State Treasurer. This is why we should care.
It is not yet too late to stop making the Wisconsin State Treasurer the shrinking office that it has become. We elected our first State Treasurer in 1848. Some were clinkers; some were gems.
Scandal-plagued Democrat State Treasurer Dawn Marie Sass has drawn a 2010 Primary challenge in her own political party. On the Republican side, Scott Feldt, aide to former State Treasurer Jack Voight, faces restaurant manager Kurt Schuller, who pledges to abolish the office. Delegates to the Republican State Convention in Milwaukee endorsed Feldt. Some think Schuller should belong to a third party because he is not a member of any county Republican party.
In other states, the State Treasurer audits the books of state government. If Wisconsin adopted this standard, the Governor would not borrow from one fund to cover a deficit in another fund without the State Treasurer knowing about it. This is true whether the Wisconsin Governor and State Treasurer are from the same or different political parties. The State Treasurer was Treasurer of the Wisconsin Investment Board, which is now dominated by people the Governor appoints.
There was a time when the Wisconsin State Treasurer was the only official chosen by voters to wear the green eye-shade. We think of financial derivatives as bringing down banks too big to fail, but the largest Wisconsin banks failed in 1901 and took the uninsured deposits of small savers with them. The Wisconsin State Treasurer made them post a bond as a condition of depositing state cash in them.
No state disbursements were made without the control of the Wisconsin State Treasurer to insure that the state lived within its means. It was the State Treasurer who collected what were new taxes on motor fuel and tobacco. After the repeal of Prohibition, the State Treasurer also collected tax on liquor and beer sold or brewed in Wisconsin. Wisconsin’s State Treasurer regulated all these activities, too. The State Treasurer was custodian of money paid to the University of Wisconsin, state school aid, the state highway fund, the general fund and state worker pensions.
Most of these functions were gradually turned over to other state departments in the late 1950s. All checks issued by the State of Wisconsin still carry the laser-printed facsimile signature of the State Treasurer, including income tax refunds.
It is not as if the Wisconsin State Treasurer does not have current functions that touch the lives of people. The State Treasurer invests extra cash from participating local governments through the Local Government Investment Pool, has custody and records for unclaimed property act and general escheat laws, runs Wisconsin college savings plans and sits on a few state boards related to the financial health of state and local governments.
However, policy for the Local Government Investment Pool and college savings plans are set by the Wisconsin Investment Board. It also runs our medical malpractice fund, which Governor Jim Doyle grabbed to paper over a deficit. He was sued by people who pay higher medical malpractice premiums as a result. If an independent State Treasurer were still on the Wisconsin Investment Board, political appointees would not have dared to grab those funds and attorneys would not be enriching themselves by arguing for each side.
It was all so wasteful and unnecessary. Abolishing the office might strike a chord with angry voters. However, the cure for the failure of Democracy is more Democracy, not less.