Unclaimed property backlog: A sign of bad government

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While under DOR, the unclaimed property program has returned nearly $18 million based on just under 19,000 claims during its first nine months of administering the program. In the last nine months it ran the program, the Treasurer’s office returned just over $30 million based on more than 31,000 claims.

WisPolitics analysis by Jason Smathers

Under the Department of Revenue the state’s unclaimed property program is a shadow of its past success. It’s clogged up, slowed down, underperforming, and all the DOR has to offer are excuses. A typical bureaucratic boondoggle.

We saw it coming.

Morning Martini predicted over the past year this meltdown based on the theorem that agencies under an unelected bureaucrat can’t possibly operate more efficiently than an office under a constitutionally elected officer. Going back to May 28 of last year, when the Office of the State Treasurer was stripped of this last major duty I wrote about the foolishness of taking away the unclaimed property program from the OST.

In this post we talked about the big bamboozle that the “Eliminate” movement is, a ploy that claims to reduce government but actually consolidates power and increases a bureaucracy which is actually less efficient at executing the necessary duties of government, increases costs, and has goals that are not aligned with the interests of the Wisconsin taxpayer. Specifically, the Department of Revenue has no real motivation to succeed at returning unclaimed property. We wrote:

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.

Many conservatives of good conscience support elimination, but I think if they look at the results of taking duties away from constitutionally elected officials and giving them to bureaucracies run by unelected paperwork handlers they might be persuaded otherwise.

The failure of the DOR to faithfully execute the unclaimed property program is one recent example. Duties have been stripped over the years from the Secretary of State’s office as well, giving us endless backlogs and red tape as entrepreneurs fight desk jockeys at the Dept. of Administration and voters and candidates contend with the Government Accountability Board, the monstrosity headed by overpaid, possibly corrupt bureaucrats that’s reviled by conservatives.

Pro-Eliminate conservatives have only themselves to blame for the GAB. The Eliminate movement some conservatives still cherish created the GAB and thickened the red tape at DOA. Taking duties away from duly elected officials whose roles are written in sepia-and-yellow in the Wisconsin Constitution doesn’t save any money, it only makes government unresponsive, inefficient, and frustrating – all the things conservatives campaign against.

Genuine, effective conservatism as opposed to phony press release conservatism proposes truly good policies that cut red tape, take authority away from bureaucrats, and make government work better for the people.

The government is now less efficient and less responsive to taxpayers thanks to the latest victory of the Eliminate movement. Less money is being returned to its rightful owners, fewer auctions are being held, and more red tape stands between taxpayers and their lost assets.

It’s a shame.

I’ve pursued the claim that eliminating duties from OST and SOS is a bad idea for a long time. Only now is the media publicly covering the stark contrast between a lethargic bureaucracy like the Department of Revenue for whom new responsibilities are just another stack of paperwork versus the OST, where the job was their claim to fame and a token of pride.

The State Journal is also reporting on the DOR’s embarrassing failures:

The list of people who have unclaimed property in Wisconsin has multiplied sixfold in less than a year…The backlog stands at about 7,300 claims as of June 1, compared to 1,200 last July.

This ought to anger Republicans who stand for good government and make all lawmakers think about whether this is the only bureaucratic boondoggle in state government caused because the wrong agency is doing the job.

Instead of taking away all their duties and leaving them nothing to do except collect a paycheck, give these offices real duties again. It’ll make for a better government, less bureaucratic B.S. for Wisconsinites, and probably actually save money.

About the writer: Chris Rochester is editor in chief of Morning Martini. He’s a communication specialist with experience in the private sector and on various campaigns. He's the communications director for the John K. MacIver Institute for Public Policy. Commentary here is strictly his own.