Political payback is how Wisconsin Secretary of State Doug La Follette describes the latest effort to strip duties from the office he has held since 1975.
“It’s hard not to see this as some sort of retribution issue,” La Follette says of a bill that would take away his office’s ability to publish bills and hand it over to another state agency. “The only reason they’re doing this is because they couldn’t get what they wanted immediately.”
And what Republicans, including Gov. Scott Walker, wanted in the spring of 2011 was for Act 10, the now famous and controversial piece of legislation that stripped most collective bargaining rights from public workers, to be published as quickly as possible.
Suddenly, the little-known duty of the secretary of state to publish a bill, thereby making it law, within 10 days of a governor signing it became a well-known fact that turned political.
Before the 10 days were up, a Dane County Circuit Court judge had issued an order blocking La Follette from publishing the bill on the grounds that Republicans had violated the open meetings law when passing it.
In June 2011, after the state Supreme Court upheld the law, La Follette again waited the full 10 days before publishing it.
“I didn’t hold back on publishing it. That’s a fallacy,” La Follette says. “By law, I have 10 days to publish and that’s how long we take with 99 percent of the bills that come through the office.”
Now, a bill sponsored by Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, would permanently take the bill-publishing responsibility from the Office of the Secretary of State and turn it over to the Legislative Reference Bureau, the agency that drafts bills.
The Legislative Reference Bureau is the same agency Republicans turned to in order to publish Act. 10 when La Follette didn't publish it fast enough for their liking.
Republicans claim Grothman's bill, which passed the Senate on a 17-14 party line vote Tuesday and now goes to the Assembly, has nothing to do with politics.
“This bill should pass 33-nothing, and the reason it should pass 33-0 is that the people who run to enact state policy are the senators, the assemblymen and the governor. ... It is not up to the secretary of state,” Grothman told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, added no one was “trying to pull a fast one.”
“We’re not trying to take any power away from Doug La Follette,” Fitzgerald told the Wisconsin State Journal after the vote.
The power and responsibilities of the Office of Secretary of State — and thereby of La Follette, who has held the office for nearly four decades — have been eroding for years.
The real duty drain began in the 1990s. That’s when former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson created the state Department of Financial Institutions.
Many business-related activities formerly housed in the secretary’s office were subsequently moved to the new agency. The Walker administration further shifted responsibilities away from the office in the last legislative session when it moved its notary public and trademark duties to DFI.
No other state has a Department of Financial Institutions, making for frequent confusion when companies call to get information, La Follette says.
“We get calls weekly from people trying to find out how to incorporate or get a trademark,” he says. “We tell them to call DFI and they don’t know what that is.”
La Follette finished last in a four-way Democratic primary to take on Walker in the June gubernatorial recall election. During the race, he pitched his idea to get rid of DFI altogether. The idea was overshadowed by other issues, though.
Since then, he says, he talks about his idea "to anyone that will listen."
La Follette would like the state to consolidate a number of “business functions” in the Office of the Secretary of State.
These would include keeping the responsibilities and positions for notary commission functions — a duty held by the secretary of state in 47 other states — and trademarks/trade names functions — a duty held by the secretary of state in 46 other states — in his office.
The remaining banking and consumer affairs duties now in DFI should be moved to the state treasurer and the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Protection, La Follette suggests.
His ideas, he says, would save the state money through the elimination of DFI.
He says restoring his office’s responsibilities has nothing to do with him personally, but would be good for business. Now 72, La Follette says this is a goal of his before he retires.
“They’ve made it so they can appoint their friends to high-paying positions,” La Follette says of Thompson and Walker. “It’s all about power and control.”