Wisconsin voters will decide April 3 whether to eliminate the office of state treasurer.
The little-known position, which dates to Wisconsin's territorial days 180 years ago, is derided as unnecessary by Republican critics but defended as essential by those fighting to save it.
The Legislature, on a bipartisan vote, placed a constitutional amendment on the ballot to eliminate the office, the first time the issue has gone to voters after being pushed off and on by lawmakers for decades. If approved, it would complete a push to weaken the office that began in the mid-1990s under then-Gov. Tommy Thompson.
Five other states have merged their state treasurers with other offices; in three of those, the duties were transferred to an elected comptroller, according to the Wisconsin Policy Forum. In Montana and Minnesota the job duties were given to governor appointees.
Former Treasurer Jack Voight, a Republican who served from 1995 to 2007, has taken up the somewhat lonesome fight to preserve the office. He's joined by Sarah Godlewski, a Democratic venture capitalist and philanthropist from Eau Claire who said she felt compelled to act once she learned what was being proposed.
They are traveling the state trying to spread the word about the amendment, arguing that the office is vital as a check on executive power and an independent fiscal watchdog.
"We hope there's vast grass roots support and groups will get the message out why this office is so important," Voight said last week. Godlewski said once people understand what's at stake, they will vote against the amendment because "having a fiscal watchdog is critical."
Voight argues that the treasurers who succeeded him — one Democrat and two Republicans — "didn't give a damn" about the office and allowed its power to be taken away. Republican Kurt Schuller ran for treasurer in 2010 on the platform of eliminating the office, but later changed his mind and fought removal of the unclaimed property duties.
Supporters of eliminating the office argue it's a waste of taxpayer dollars to keep a position that has almost no duties. The sponsor of the amendment, Republican state Rep. Michael Schraa, says the treasurer is a relic of the past with no real purpose or reason to exist. Gov. Scott Walker also supports the amendment.
Schraa says if voters decide to keep the office, he would work to restore its powers.
"We don't know what those duties would be right now," Schraa said. "It would be a question for the next Legislature to decide, but yes, I would lead the charge."
The current treasurer, Republican Matt Adamczyk, isn't seeking re-election and supports elimination.
"It's a symbolic win for smaller government," Adamczyk said. Arguing that the office could have more power ignores the reality that the Legislature has opted, over the past two decades, to shrink it, he said.
Tom Hiller, a 25-year-old Republican and investment manager from Madison, is the only candidate registered to run for the office, which pays almost $70,000. The filing deadline is June 1. Hiller said he's working with Voight and others to spread the word against the amendment.
Hiller wants to see the amendment rejected. He argues that the treasurer position is important for safeguarding the efficient and proper use of taxpayer money.
The office of territorial treasurer was created in 1839 and the current elected position was adopted as part of the state constitution in 1848. Its duties used to be far more extensive, including directly collecting taxes, personally depositing checks and withdrawing money.
The push to reduce the office's powers began in the mid-1990s and started gaining steam in 2011. Over that time, cash management functions and control of the EdVest college savings program were moved to the Department of Administration, which is under the governor's control; the unclaimed property division was given to the Department of Revenue; and in 2015 the assistant treasurer position was eliminated.
The office's budget has shrunk from $4.4 million and 23½ staff in 1995 to $227,000 and one staff member in the current two-year budget, according to an analysis by the Wisconsin Policy Forum.
The treasurer's most significant remaining duty is to be a member of the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands, a little-known entity that manages trust funds built through fees, fines and land sales.
The board includes the treasurer, attorney general and secretary of state. If the amendment is approved, the lieutenant governor would replace the treasurer on the board.