Candidates vow secretary of state will have power

MADISON, Wis. (AP) – Candidates lined up to become Wisconsin’s next secretary of state want the Legislature to return duties to the nearly powerless position.

A Republican candidate says state lawmakers should stop trying to eliminate the position and give back oversight of statewide elections. Democratic Secretary of State Doug La Follette, who’s up for re-election, says the state should give back most power, and a second Republican said he’d listen to voters before deciding what to do.

But in an era of cutting back state spending at any chance, sitting lawmakers say taxpayers aren’t getting their money’s worth – about $500,000 annually – for the office to have only one meaningful role. The GOP-controlled Legislature appears set to move forward with attempts to pass a constitutional amendment to end the position entirely, with Assembly Speaker Robin Vos on board and planning to also make changes to the nonpartisan Government Accountability Board, which oversees elections.

Forty-seven states still have a secretary of state, some of whom run statewide elections and licensing. But Wisconsin’s lawmakers have whittled the position into near obsolescence and promise to continue until there is nothing left to attack. Rep. Michael Schraa, R-Oshkosh, even proposed an amendment last session that would have eliminated the office and the treasurer position before the effort sputtered in the Senate.

Under La Follette, the secretary of state’s only marquee role is to serve on the three-member public lands board, which meets for less than an hour each month.

In the 1970s, Wisconsin put the State Elections Board in charge of statewide elections instead of the secretary of state’s office. Later, the task fell to the GAB.

GAB spokesman Reid Magney declined to comment on lawmakers’ calls to reform the board.

“I definitely support reforming the GAB so that it isn’t an agency run by bureaucracy as opposed to people who are directly accountable in some way,” said Vos, a Rochester Republican who didn’t clarify what kind of reform he’s seeking. In the past, Republicans have been critical of the board’s decisions.

Julian Bradley, who won the GOP endorsement, said a way to hold elections boards accountable is to have an elected official overseeing the operations.

“I want people to see the secretary of state as a constitutional officer in the state of Wisconsin and say ‘I’m glad that person is there,'” Bradley said.

La Follette doesn’t support taking oversight of the elections away from the GAB and returning it to his office, saying that duty should remain nonpartisan. Instead, he wants his office to register trademarks and handle notary public commissions, among business-related duties.

“Now, the governor can appoint four or five of their friends to (unelected positions),” said La Follette, who has held the position almost exclusively since the 1970s. “That isn’t the way to run a government.”

Racine Republican Bill Folk dropped out late last week, three months ahead of the August 12 primary. He had campaigned on restoring election and licensing duties, but said he didn’t believe the Legislature would cooperate.

Rep. Garey Bies, R-Sister Bay, who is leaving the Assembly to run, said he would support whatever effort lawmakers wanted – as long as the public knows what they’re paying for.

“If they wanted to expand, we could do that. If they want to eliminate, I would work” to do that, Bies said.

Getting rid of the constitutional office involves passing an amendment through both houses in two consecutive years, then sending the question to the voters. The earliest it could be eliminated is January 2019.