Eau Claire Native Sarah Godlewski Has Big Plan for Boosting the Profile of the State Treasurer’s Office
First, Eau Claire native Sarah Godlewski led a successful effort to save the job of Wisconsin’s elected treasurer by defeating a statewide referendum last year. Next, she was elected to that office herself by winning a statewide election in November.
Now, she’s facing an even bigger challenge: Maintaining – and increasing – the relevancy of an office whose powers have been eroded in recent years and whose most recent occupant actively campaigned to eliminate.
In a recent interview, Godlewski described the tasks at hand: “How do I rebuild an office that has been vacated for more than four years? And how do we rebuild a legacy of the state treasurer being the state’s chief financial officers?”
Those are questions Godlewski is prepared to answer over the coming four years by promoting the office as an independent financial watchdog for state government as well as an entity that helps consumer with their financial needs by confronting issues such as student loan debt and retirement savings.
SAVING THE OFFICE
Godlewski, a 37-year-old graduate of Memorial High School, holds degrees from George Mason University and the University of Pennsylvania. Most recently, she was co-founder of a MaSa Partners, an investment firm focused on aiding “socially responsible, early-stage companies.” Before that, she was director of strategy and performance for Arapahoe County, Colorado, and an associate at Booz Allen Hamilton, a management consulting firm in the Washington, D.C., area, where she worked on a variety of projects within the Defense Department. Her resume also includes stints working on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and as a congressional intern.
A few years ago, while lamenting the lack of investment capital available to small Wisconsin businesses, Godlewski learned about a program operated by the state treasurer in Rhode Island that offered low-interest loans to small businesses. Thinking Wisconsin’s treasurer could develop a similar program, Godlewski reached out to Matt Adamczyk, then the incumbent treasurer.
“My calls weren’t returned. There was nobody home in the treasurer’s office,” she said. Godlewski soon learned that Adamczyk was working to eliminate his own job, citing it as unnecessary and wasteful.
Godlewski worried about what would happen if Wisconsin became the first state in the nation to eliminate the constitutionally-mandated post. An independent treasurer, she said, is important to provide oversight on the state’s finances from outside the Legislature or governor’s office. “I was just really concerned that Wisconsin was going to remove its chief financial officer,” she said. She campaigned against the referendum to eliminate the office, which Wisconsin voters defeated by a 62% to 38% margin in April 2018. A few days later, Godlewski announced she would be seeking the treasurer’s office in the fall as a Democrat.
Since taking office in January, Godlewski has been working to raise her department’s profile, despite a lack of staff and resources. As a Wisconsin State Journal profile noted, Godlewski has only one staff member and works out of an office in the basement of the state Capitol that lacks both windows and Wi-Fi. And yet Godlewski is more focused on what her office can do in the future than on what it used to do in the past (such as overseeing the state’s college savings program). She points to a list of 16 powers and duties of the office, including serving on the Board of Commissioner of Public Lands, which oversees a $1.2 billion trust fund that aids schools with books and technology; serving as treasurer of both the state investment board and the state employee trust fund; signing millions of state checks annually; and promoting the unclaimed property program.
There’s also the bully pulpit provided by being an elected official to promote issues such as economic security, retirement savings, and student loan debt. In other states, treasurers have undertaken innovated programs to address these issues: For example, Godlewski said, the state treasurer’s office in Oregon created a public Roth IRA program he help residents save for retirement.
For Godlewski, pursuing such policies may be an uphill battle considering the highly partisan nature of 21st century politics. For instance, in his version of the 2019-21 state budget, Gov. Tony Evers, a fellow Democrat, proposed setting aside $50,000 for a committee to oversee student loan refinancing, but the funding was removed by Republican lawmakers. Nonetheless, Godlewski intends to push forward with a task force that has held public input sessions on student loan debt.
“My primary goal with the retirement task force and the student loan task force is (finding) things that are achievable on both sides of the aisle but also get buy-in from Wisconsinites,” Godlewski said.
Protecting tax dollars and improving the economic security of state residents shouldn’t be partisan issues, she added: “The things we are fighting for are Wisconsin values, and we need to work together to achieve those.”
Learn more about state Treasurer Sarah Godlewski and her office at statetreasurer.wi.gov.