Wisconsin Examiner

Will New State Treasurer Make Changes?

Democrat Sarah Godlewski took expansive view of office. What will Republican John Leiber do?

By , Wisconsin Examiner - Dec 20th, 2022 10:09 am
John Leiber. from John Leiber for Wisconsin State Treasurer.

John Leiber. from John Leiber for Wisconsin State Treasurer.

When 2023 arrives at the Wisconsin Capitol, one of these will be not like the others.

Gov. Tony Evers, Attorney General Josh Kaul and Secretary of State Doug La Follette, all Democrats, each survived the November 8 election to serve another term. The state treasurer’s office, however, will be occupied by a newly elected Republican: John Leiber.

Expansive view

Treasurer Sarah Godlewski all but reinvented the job after leading a campaign in April 2018 that defeated a Wisconsin constitutional amendment to eliminate the state treasurer, then running for the office herself that November.

Over the last few decades the Legislature carved away duties from the treasurer, assigning them to other agencies with leaders appointed by the governor rather than elected by voters. The office is now in the basement of the Capitol; Godlewski’s sole aide is officially a Department of Revenue employee.

Under the state constitution the powers and duty of the treasurer “shall be prescribed by law.” It also specifies that the treasurer serves on the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands with the secretary of state and the attorney general, managing revenue from the sale of state land.

Godlewski has taken an expansive view of the office. “This position has always had the ability to truly be the state’s chief financial officer,” she said in an interview. “But that’s really up to the person elected.”

Over her term, she said, she focused on economic security, the public lands board’s investments, and transparency in state spending.

Godlewski worked with county treasurers in a program to head off tax foreclosure by homeowners falling behind on property tax bills and as they developed a program to encourage home ownership with the anti-poverty Wisconsin Community Action Program Association. She also promoted retirement security programs.

At the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands, Godlewski and the other board members killed a gag order instituted under previous Republican members blocking the agency’s investment professionals from discussing climate change as an investment risk factor.

On the board’s investment committee, Godlewski drew on her previous private sector work with her husband, Max Duckworth, running an investment firm supporting for-profit businesses that focus on societal problems. She encouraged prioritizing Wisconsin investments and screening investments for risks related to environmental issues, employee policies and corporate governance, sometimes called ESG investing.

Under those policies, “We have had record-breaking distributions every single year,” Godlewski said. The money goes to school districts for libraries and related technology, as well as a special distribution to help schools with remote learning early in the COVID-19 pandemic.

She also got involved in economic development subjects, including working with the Wisconsin Paper Council when it applied for a $1 million federal grant that led the industry group to name her its “policymaker of the year.”

Nearly two years ago, Godlewski decided to forgo reelection and instead sought the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate, intending to run against Republican Ron Johnson. Although she dropped out just before the August primary, her candidacy for a different office meant she couldn’t run again, leaving the race for treasurer wide open.

Top Republican vote-getter

John Leiber defeated the Democratic candidate for state treasurer, Fitchburg Mayor Aaron Richardson, by a margin of less than 2 percentage points — making Leiber the only GOP candidate other than two-term Sen. Ron Johnson to win a statewide race in Wisconsin this fall.

With more than 1.29 million ballots cast in his favor, his vote total topped that of Tim Michels, the defeated GOP candidate for governor by more than 25,000 votes. Leiber also ran ahead of Democratic Secretary of State Doug La Follette, who eked out a margin of 7,442 votes over his Republican challenger.

Leiber focused his campaign on the treasurer’s membership on the public lands board as the only duty specified in the state constitution. In an interview a few weeks after the election, he reiterated that is “the biggest part” of the treasurer’s job and will be his primary focus in office.

Serving on the panel and providing oversight in the investment program is more than just a few minutes a week or a meeting or two a month, he said. “There’s materials to read, there’s discussions to be had about what the future of the program is, how it’s working right now, how can it be improved, and how it interacts with the rest of the state government,” Leiber said.

The Common School Fund that the public lands investments support is “going in the right direction,” Leiber said. “I just want to make sure it keeps going that way.”

At the same time, the public lands work won’t add up to a full 40-hour week, he acknowledged. “There’s other ways that treasurers can have an impact on state government,” Leiber said. “I plan to use not just the powers, as limited as they are, but also relationships and the bully pulpit, as it were.”

Working with the Legislature

The primary relationships that Leiber said he would try to cultivate are with lawmakers.

Leiber has in mind changes “to clean up the statutes to deal with the treasurer, because they’re all scattered and all over the place [in the state laws] and they don’t really relate to the current duties of the treasurer,” he said. “I’d like to make sure it’s clear what the treasurer does, first of all, before we’re talking about any sort of other additional responsibilities.”

While Godlewski has highlighted a bipartisan bill she helped spark that would seed an investment account at birth for every Wisconsin resident, she also suggested she didn’t see much value in pursuing more legislative initiatives during her time in office.

“We had the least active Legislature during COVID in the entire country,” she said. “I wasn’t going to wait around for the Legislature to get to work.” Since her job was preserved in the state constitution, she focused on “what can we start doing within that executive authority and within that platform, to make a difference as soon as possible.”

Leiber entered politics by getting active in the Racine County Republican Party over the last two decades. He served as a district staffer for Sen. Van Wanggaard and later as an aide to one-time State Rep. Tom Weatherston, both Republicans. He ran for the Assembly in 2018 and lost the GOP primary to Robert Wittke, who will begin his third term in January.

Leiber went on to get a law degree at the University of Wisconsin, graduating in 2021 and relocating from Racine to Cottage Grove.

He expects his background as a legislative aide will gain him entrée and influence with the Legislature’s GOP majority. At the same time, he’s met with Democrats in the Legislature and has plans to meet with Evers in January.

He has also met Godlewski. She called their meeting “a good conversation” and professed optimism that “he’s going to continue to build on the success and progress that we’ve made in the office and serve the people of Wisconsin.”

Leiber said he doesn’t want to have a “hyper-partisan” office. “You can’t just go to your party and say, ‘Let’s do this,’ because there’s divided government,” he said. “So if you actually want to accomplish something, you’ve got to get everybody on board.”

As state treasurer’s office swings to Republican, potential for a dramatic shift was originally published by the Wisconsin Examiner.

One thought on “Will New State Treasurer Make Changes?”

  1. ringo muldano says:

    “You can’t just go to your party and say, ‘Let’s do this,’ because there’s divided government,”

    Leiber is typical rCon and can fuckin go to hell.

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