No governor in the United States has been so resolutely determined to structurally diminish democracy as Scott Walker.
Just last week, the hyper-partisan governor of Wisconsin was called out by a judge he had appointed for literally refusing to let Wisconsinites vote for their elected representatives. The governor’s rationale for failing to call special elections to fill vacant state legislative seats was so absurd that Dane County Circuit Judge Josann Reynolds dismissed it as “inconsistent, incompatible and irreconcilable.”
In ordering Walker to call the special elections for vacant State Assembly and State Senate seats, Judge Reynolds saw through the manufactured explanations for blocking elections that Republicans might lose and simply declared, “To state the obvious, if the plaintiffs have a right to vote for their representatives, they must have an election to do so.”
Logic and the law tripped Walker up and, thankfully, there was a judge to check and balance the governor’s antidemocratic impulses.
But sometimes the voters must take charge of checking and balancing gubernatorial power grabs.
That will be the case on April 3, when Wisconsin voters will have an opportunity to reject Walker’s most audacious assault on democracy yet.
The governor who has tried to prevent voters from electing their representatives in special elections is now supporting a move to eliminate an elected statewide office—literally striking it off the ballot so that voters will no longer have any role at all in filling it.
The office is that of state treasurer, a constitutional position that has existed from the founding of Wisconsin.
Wisconsin’s founders, like the state’s leaders through much of its history, recognized the value of sharing power in a number of statewide elected posts. They created a governorship with a two-year term and a separate lieutenant governorship, as well as an attorney general, secretary of state, and state treasurer. All were elected in partisan contests. After some tinkering and rearranging, a sixth constitutional office, that of state superintendent of public instruction, was established as a nonpartisan position.
Over the past 50 years, successive governors and legislators have conspired to consolidate power in the executive branch. They amended the constitution to eliminate two-year terms and replace them with four-year terms (eliminating a level of electoral accountability), they undermined the independence of the lieutenant governor’s office by requiring candidates for governor and lieutenant governor to run as a ticket, they took away the power of the secretary of state to oversee elections. They took away most of the financial oversight duties of the state treasurer’s office. And they frequently sought to undermine the authority of the superintendent of public instruction.
At every turn, power has been shifted toward the governor’s office. In recent years, Walker and his legislative allies have accelerated the process. They have stripped authority and staff from the offices of secretary of state and state treasurer; they have engaged in partisan assaults on the independence and integrity of the superintendent of public instruction; and they have even gone so far as to push for a restructuring of the state Supreme Court that politicized the selection of the chief justice.
Now they are going to even further extremes. Walker’s legislative cronies have placed on the April 3 ballot an amendment proposal to simply eliminate the state treasurer’s office. If they get away with this stunt, it is a safe bet that they will eventually seek to eliminate the secretary of state’s office and the independent Department of Public Instruction.
This would make Walker and future governors even more powerful. The cronies they appoint would manage state business as extensions of the governor’s office, rather than as extensions of the electorate. Accountability would be further eroded.
In the case of eliminating the treasurer’s office, oversight of public lands in Wisconsin would also be altered—in a way that, again, would shift more power toward the governor’s office.
Currently, the state treasurer sits on the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands, which is charged with managing roughly $1 billion in public assets and 77,000 acres of state land. With the secretary of state and the attorney general, the treasurer sits on the commission with a duty to “carry on the pioneering commitment of our state’s early leaders to a constitutionally protected form of public education financing that originated with millions of acres of land granted by the federal government.” While most of the school-trust lands were sold more than a century ago, the School Trust Funds managed by the commission continue to expand and remain a significant state asset.
Under the proposed amendment on the April 3 ballot, Walker’s lieutenant governor would replace the treasurer on the commission—meaning that, for the first time in Wisconsin history, someone who was elected not on his or her own but on a ticket with the governor would serve on what was designed to be a independent commission.
That may not seem like the most dramatic change to some. But it is part and parcel of the broader shift away from the carefully designed balancing of powers that was established at the founding of the state. That’s unsettled Democrats who usually oppose Walker and even some Republicans. Former state treasurer Jack Voight says of the proposed amendment: “It will silence the financial voice of our state and silence the checks and balances.”
Voight and a number of other current and former officials, from both parties, are urging voters to reject the amendment. They recognize that it is unwise to consolidate more power in the hands of the governor and his unaccountable appointees.
Several legislators have suggested that a strong “no” vote on April 3 would signal a desire to renew the treasurer’s office by restoring at least some of its historic authority.
More broadly, a “no” vote would signal that Wisconsin should stop the process of shifting more and more power toward the governor’s office.
No state is well served by an all-powerful governor. In fact, if the recent shenanigans of Walker and other governors with regard to special elections are any indication, governors are becoming so powerful that many of them no longer believe that they must respect the laws and the traditions of the states.
Citizens are best served by multiple elected officials with well-defined responsibilities and shared authority. That’s true for Wisconsin and for every other state, as it is the federal government. The whole point of a system of checks and balances is for power to be shared by elected officials who get their authority from the people—not from a power-hungry executive.