Thursday, September 12, 2019

State treasurer visits central Wisconsin

The current priorities of the state treasurer of Wisconsin was the topic of an event in Wausau on September 11, hosted by Citizen Action of Wisconsin North Central Organizing Co-op, the Wausau chapter of Women for Women, and County Board Supervisor Katie Rosenberg. State treasurer Sarah Godlewski gave an overview of her office’s responsibilities as the state fiscal watchdog agency and plans for helping Wisconsin citizens.

During former governor Scott Walker’s tenure, republicans proposed eliminating the office of state treasurer in order to concentrate more power in the executive branch. Godlewski led a successful campaign to defeat a proposed amendment to the Wisconsin constitution to remove the office. In a state-wide referendum in spring of 2018, voters overwhelmingly rejected the effort to permanently eliminate the state treasurer. That year Godlewski narrowly defeated former republican state treasurer Jack Voight.

Since taking office in January, Sarah Godlewski has sought to focus the agency's advocacy efforts into several key areas including the creation of publicly managed retirement savings and ending predatory student loan debt.

During the meeting Godlewski announced that she and Wisconsin governor Tony Evers will be launching a retirement task force. Workers in Wisconsin average less than $3,000 in their retirement savings, according to Godlewski. She said Wisconsinites have not been given the right tools from their employers to save money for retirement. Other states, including Oregon and Colorado, have created public retirement systems. Oregon Saves, for example, saw a participation rate of 100,000 workers during its first two years in operation, created a fund of over $20 million, and reduced the retirement income gap by 16 percent. The program’s administrative costs were entirely financed by participant contributions and no additional public financing was needed. Expanding options for retirement savings is one area where Godlewski believes efforts by the state treasurer’s office can lead to better financial security for residents. Another option being explored is the use of 'baby savings accounts' -- by depositing money into an investment savings account when a person is born, to be used for college expenses, medical bills, and retirement.

Godlewski's agency started an impact investment firm this year to spur investment in small business. She said small businesses in Silicon Valley receive more funding in a single day than all of Wisconsin combined in one year. Godlewski noted that Wisconsin has one of the lowest rates of small business ownership by women and minorities, which she wants to change. "It's not just about corporations and the one percent," she said.

Another key responsibility for Godlewski is her role as chairperson of the state Board of Commissioners of Public Lands, which is responsible for a $1.2 billion trust fund. The funding is mandated by the state constitution and was initially collected from the sale of public lands. The board exercises fiduciary responsibility over the trust fund which is used to purchase books and finance technology projects in public schools. If the fund did not exist, Godlewski noted, property taxes would likely increase to make up for the difference.

Regarding Wisconsin's collective $24 billion in student loan debt, Godlewski hopes to provide public refinancing of predatory, high-interest rate loans, some of which are set at 15 percent. Consumer protection has been lacking, such as requiring lenders to report how they profit from the loans. "We've been looking at how we can provide a fair lending solution to allow people to go to college -- not necessarily free but giving people a fair shake" Godlewski said. Previously Godlewski has suggested that state trust funds be used to help with the student loan crisis.

As climate change has become a topic of intense concern, Godlewski has reversed a policy which prohibited investment in renewable energy projects. This has allowed, for instance, funding for a solar powered municipal wastewater system. Climate change was not even allowed to be included in analysis or reports about investments prior to this change.

Citizen Action of Wisconsin is an issue focused coalition of individuals and organizations committed to achieving social, economic, and environmental justice. More information can be found at