One hundred and seventy one. That’s not only the age of Wisconsin but also the age of its State Treasurer’s Office. This constitutional office has been serving Wisconsinites since the very beginning.
Yet, over the past decade, there have been numerous attempts to diminish the role of the treasurer, eroding important checks and balances. The final straw came last year, when lawmakers sought to permanently remove this office from our Constitution. Wisconsinites, in response, voted overwhelmingly to preserve it. After I worked with a bipartisan coalition to save the office, I ran knowing I would have to roll up my sleeves and rebuild it from the ground up.
But even I was surprised at how big a task that would be.
I walked into my office for the first time on Jan. 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. The treasurer’s office is self-funded, operating on revenue generated by programs it supports or administers. But we cannot access these millions of dollars of program revenue to rebuild and carry out our responsibilities. Why? Because access to even a dollar of these funds requires legislative approval.
There are 17 statutory responsibilities the State Treasurer’s Office is required to fulfill, including the investment of public money. We have taken steps to better carry out these responsibilities. For example, through my work as chair of the school trust funds, which amount to $1.2 billion, we have overturned a climate change gag order and lifted the ban on renewable energy funding. In 2018, these trusts returned $36 million to fund schools and libraries.
There is much more than I want the treasurer’s office to do. Take the issue of retirement. More than half of Americans have no retirement savings, which puts them at risk. Eighty-eight percent of Wisconsinites support a state-run retirement option. I was recently appointed to a leadership role on the Retirement Task Force created by Gov. Tony Evers. It’s important we consider all options to address retirement.
In addition, Wisconsin has the sixth largest percentage of graduates with outstanding student loan debt, for which annual interest rates can reach 15 percent. This inflicts an incredible burden on young people that negatively impacts our economy. And, unlike your home or car loan, there are minimal ways to refinance student debt. Evers has proposed a student loan refinancing authority where I am part of a three-person leadership group working to reduce this liability for hard-working Wisconsinites.
The governor has proposed essential funding for the treasurer’s office that will help protect your tax dollars and build a stronger economy for everyone. But the Legislature’s GOP-dominated Joint Finance Committee recently voted to remove it.
I hope the prevailing politics holding up this office’s budget will soon be put aside. Let your legislators know that you support adequate funding for an office the voters of Wisconsin acted to protect.
Sarah Godlewski is Wisconsin’s state treasurer. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine.