The Elimination Swindle

Updated

Conservatives in Wisconsin are split over the question of whether to eliminate the offices of Secretary of State and State Treasurer.

Some Wisconsin Republicans, many in what could be called the “establishment,” are pushing for an amendment to the Wisconsin state constitution to eliminate both offices. Yes, by way of primer, both offices were in our state’s founding documents since 1848. In fact, AJR 48, the bill that proposes to do just that, may be taken up before this week is over.

But something interesting is happening on the right: a pronounced backlash to the notion that eliminating the offices is actually the conservative thing to do. Many outside the beltline advocating for smaller government and less bureaucracy have now seen through the fraud that is the Elimination “movement” in Wisconsin.

In fact, Republican front-runners for the two offices, Julian Bradley and Scott Feldt, both oppose eliminating the offices, rejecting the tried-and-failed grandstand/gimmick of running on a platform of getting rid of the offices once elected. Theirs are honest platforms that suggest there are valuable things the officers can and should be doing.

Eliminating the offices is not the conservative thing to do, and here’s why:

Conservatism at its very heart idealizes a minimized role for bureaucrats in the lives of the citizens. Executive agencies and unaccountable paperwork pushers should bear only the most essential tasks, a tenet which holds true at the federal level and the state level.

The Treasurer and Secretary of State both have important jobs to do, or at least they did. That’s why they were among five statewide elected offices outlined in the constitution. The need to fulfill those duties hasn’t gone away. In fact, the duties have bit by bit been given to unelected bureaucrats at the Government Accountability Board and Department of Administration (duties stripped from the SOS) and Department of Revenue (stripped from the Treasurer).

The right advocates a strict constructionalism when it comes to the founding documents of the nation. It follows logically that the same approach should be taken at the state level.

A case study of why taking away duties have been backwards steps for Wisconsin can be illustrated in the conundrum of the DOR. Since 2010, Treasurer Kurt Schuller and Deputy Treasurer Scott Feldt have returned records amount of money to the Wisconsinites to whom it rightly belonged via the office’s unclaimed property program. The pair was remarkably successful. An old blog of mine elaborates on this.

That program – returning unclaimed property – is now in the hands of the DOR, the agency in charge of collecting money and bolstering the state’s coffers. If unclaimed property collects too much dust, under the new regime, it will be returned to general funds. You’ll forfeit that old pay check you forgot about or the CD grandma bought you decades ago and that was lost after she passed.

It’s your money. The state has no right to take it away, especially if it’s accumulating interest. The DOR having this job is a fraud.

Accountability for this program and others for which the Treasurer was once held responsible will be all but impossible short of throwing out the governor, because neither the head of the DOR or DOA are elected.

The people should have the option of voting out a failed state treasurer, or electing someone with great experience to an office that should have the oversight responsibilities of a chief financial officer. The same is true for the SOS.

Which brings me to the Republican front-runners for both offices. Scott Feldt, who has nearly ten years experience in the office and has been deputy treasurer since 2010, as well as a career in economic development, is bucking the GOP ruling cadre by advocating the office be kept. Early word is he’s got the trebuchet ratcheted.

Julian Bradley, who upon his entrance in the crowded GOP Secretary of State field immediately became the odds-on favorite, also advocates keeping the office. The only thing that needs to be removed from the office is Doug La Follette, the 36-year Democrat incumbent, his website states. Bradley’s also pulling no punches.

Both candidates buck the thinking within the GOP’s ruling cadre, which signifies that the claim that the offices should be eliminated to somehow shrink government is a farce. Anyone who runs for either office claiming to eliminate it is trying to pull a fast one on voters, as are lawmakers pushing constitutional amendments to do the same. Not only are such people unable to fulfill such a promise, but those who came before them also failed. In fact, such candidates probably have cold, clammy fingers thrust into the wind of political opinion, looking for an easy entrance into a state salary.

The Elimination movement is a ploy to empower two already powerful state agencies -the Dept. of Administration and the Dept. of Revenue – with powers over which no voters can hold them accountable.

Every ploy starts with a motivation, however, so what could the motivation be for Republicans who strive to transfer the duties of these elected offices to bureaucrats? It could be sheer hubris. Most conservatives would readily offer that career politicians – the “elite” or “ruling” class of both parties – simply enjoy power. They enjoy having it, they enjoy exercising it, and they enjoy consolidating it.

“But those are antiquated offices,” the Binford 5000 Talking Points Generator on an Eliminator’s desktop might say. Yeah, just like the Second Amendment, the parrot on the Lefty’s shoulder says. The only reason they’d be antiquated is because statists have been stripping away their powers for years in a battle on behalf of bureaucracy.

Unfortunately many legislators swallow the Elimination kool-aid without thinking it over. They also fail to consider that hubris is the only guaranteed pathway to downfall for a political party in power. Conservative lawmakers who actually care about doing what’s right for Wisconsin citizens need to take a close look at the real motivations behind the Eliminators.

The real choice isn’t whether to have the offices or not. Blowhards have been talking big for decades about it. The real choice is between accountability and bureaucracy.

For a thoughtful conservative with a thorough understanding of what the basic ideals of small government Republican form of government are, the choice is clear that the offices should not only stay but have powers taken away from bureaucrats and returned to them.

That’s the real Republican way.

About the writer: Chris Rochester has worked in communications and finance for a state Senate and congressional campaign, consulted on numerous Assembly and local races, and has held leadership roles in his local Republican Party. He's communications director for the MacIver Institute. Commentary here is strictly his own.