The executive branch of Wisconsin state government has undergone a striking realignment over the past five years. The legislative actions that have enabled this realignment share a common theme: the consolidation of executive power under the governor’s office.
As with every major move the state government makes these days, the realignment is controversial. The matter came to something of a head earlier this summer, when Secretary of State Doug La Follette sued the administration of Gov. Scott Walker.
The statutory duties of La Follette’s office were whittled down substantially during the governor’s first term. The 2015-2017 state budget hit the office again, cutting its already-diminished funding and staff by about 50 percent each. La Follette believes that these latest cuts have finally made it impossible for his office to carry out its single constitutional duty, to “keep a fair record of the official acts of the Legislature and executive department of the state.” Only a constitutional amendment can legally separate that job from the secretary.
The specific merits of La Follette’s case are for the courts to decide. But the general push to diminish the scope of the secretary of state’s authority is probably personal to La Follette. The Republicans who control state government hold a serious grudge over his refusal, in 2011, to treat Act 10 as emergency legislation. (Public unions were able to use La Follette’s typical 10-day publication delay to collectively bargain for last-minute contracts.) It’s hard to imagine that the latest round of downsizing would have been initiated if popular Republican Julian Bradley, who advocated for a revitalization of the secretary’s office, had beaten La Follette in the 2014 election.
To constrict the duties of an elective executive office — to the brink of complete obsolescence — is a very serious thing. Is it wise to base such a decision on personality? Major executive duties cannot be whimsically shifted around, depending on who happens to occupy an office, without incurring substantial costs.
Besides, personality-based decisions can backfire in the long run. Many who are riled by the powers that President Obama exercises under the USA PATRIOT Act were eager to grant those same powers to President Bush in 2001.
The office of state treasurer has suffered a major contraction of its own over the last five years. It was already a shadow of its former self when this decade began: Once upon a time, the treasurer oversaw all revenue operations for the state and administered its banking regulations.
Republican Kurt Schuller ran for treasurer in 2010 with the express intent of eliminating the position completely. The Legislature took steps to oblige the victorious Schuller almost immediately, paring his department’s jobs down to just one: operating the state’s unclaimed property program, which matches abandoned assets with their rightful owners.
But somewhere along the line, Schuller changed his mind completely about the office he ran. He said he was “stunned” when, in 2013, the Legislature handed management of unclaimed property over to the Department of Revenue, leaving Schuller and his staff with virtually nothing to do. Many of Schuller’s pro-treasurer arguments at the time revolved specifically around the unclaimed property issue. He had become absolutely convinced that the program was thriving under his office’s management, and he had the statistics to back it up.
Schuller’s successful oversight of unclaimed property bears out the general rule that elected officials, responsible directly to the people, are better stewards of the people’s business than bureaucrats. This is a typically conservative notion, though at the moment too few conservatives in Wisconsin seem to recognize it as such. Some, like Schuller, who came to statewide prominence as a tea party activist, have broken from the pack. At the time of the unclaimed property controversy, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported former Republican Treasurer Jack Voight as saying, “I really believe when you have elected officials, you get better results.” Even Congressman Glenn Grothman, who as state senator supported stripping Doug La Follette of his law-publishing duties, has affirmed, “I like it when the secretary of state has things to do. I think it’s good when we have elected officials running offices,” according to the Wisconsin Reporter.
The strong link between the number of specialized, elective executive offices and responsiveness to voters is confirmed by scholarly studies. A 2008 University of Chicago Law Review article found that, “as executive authority is even partially unbundled and primary responsibility for specific policy domains is given to a directly-elected official … (b)oth the general purpose and the special purpose executives should be more responsive to public preferences.” The authors of the article suggest that even federal executive authority should be unbundled, considering how presidential power has ballooned since the office was conceived.
Conservatives should also beware the siren song of "smaller government" that the diminution of special purpose executive offices seems to promise. The moves against the secretary of state and treasurer have done nothing more than shift duties and budget dollars to other parts of the government.
To wit, the Department of Revenue spent a million dollars on a new computer system to help them manage their newfound unclaimed properties duties. But the program’s asset backlog exploded sixfold in the year following the hand-over. Naturally, the DOR claims that it inherited a defective program. But Wisconsin taxpayers can only hope that the expensive new technology returns the program to the status quo ante, the apparently fine state it was in under previous management.
The joint demolition of the secretary of state and treasurer’s offices has been visible and dramatic. But the recent enthusiasm for executive centralization has manifested itself in other, quieter ways. Independent boards have been made less so, administrative agencies have forfeited their rule-making authority, and high-level civil service positions have become subject to gubernatorial appointment. Taken individually, some of these might have been wise moves. But power in Wisconsin state government is drifting consistently in one direction, and history tells us that can’t be a good thing.
Michael Cummins is a business analyst who resides in Madison.
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