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State treasurer's job -- up to the voters

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Capitol
(LJS file photo)

The state Legislature has weighed in.

Thirty-eight of 49 senators voted yes in March on a resolution (LR284CA) to let Nebraskans vote on whether to amend the state Constitution to abolish the office of treasurer.

The senator who sponsored the resolution, Sen. Dennis Utter of Hastings, said: "One of the main reasons that I sought to become a state senator was to look for ways to streamline and modernize state government, to make state government smaller, more efficient, more transparent and more effective."

This proposal, he said, can do just that.

Gov. Dave Heineman and three former Nebraska governors -- Kay Orr, Sen. Mike Johanns and Charley Thone, all Republicans -- said in a recent letter they disagreed with the majority of the Legislature.

It would not eliminate any duties of the state treasurer, the four said, just the position. Those duties and authority would be transferred to unelected officials.

"This is not at all in the public interest," they said. "The person responsible for the treasurer's duties should be an elected official."

It would make more sense to consolidate the state's financial functions under the treasurer's office and eliminate some appointed officials, they said.

The treasurer's office receives and disburses state funds, oversees the college savings program, unclaimed property and the long-term care savings plan. The office also runs Nebraska's child support payment center.

A state treasurer provides an important check and balance on handling billions of dollars that flow through the state treasury each year, Heineman and the former governors said.

Eliminating the office would jeopardize an important safeguard of taxpayers' money, they said.

Utter responded, saying the proposal is fiscally sound and state officials need to concentrate on doing what they can to reduce the cost of running state government.

Eliminating the treasurer's office "is the beginning of a process of streamlining state government that we must continue to work on in the days, months and years ahead," he said.

For checks and balances, Utter said, Nebraskans have the state auditor.

But current state Treasurer Shane Osborn said the auditor looks at only a sample of budgets yearly.

A state treasurer is especially needed during tough economic times, Osborn said.

"During a time of economic crisis, does a company get rid of its chief financial officer?" he said.

Osborn said that under his watch, the office has run efficiently, something that is often overlooked. He reduced the office budget by 12 percent and the staff by 25 percent at a time when government, in general, is growing.

The child support payment center is the most efficient in the country, he said.

"I'm a small-government guy, and I've proven that," he said.

And, he said, the office is breaking records in returning unclaimed property to people, where it can best be used to boost the state's economy.

And when it comes to streamlining government, he's never heard of a bureaucrat doing that, he said. State government employees have no real motivation to reduce spending, he said.

"The only person that's going to be driven to do that is an elected official," Osborn said.

Utter has estimated the state could save up to $500,000 by eliminating the office.

But the only guaranteed savings would be the treasurer's salary, about $117,000 with benefits. One or two other positions might also go away. But if other departments have to hire more help, even that savings could disappear.

Utter said 13 other states don't have elected treasurers and others are considering the idea.

Lincoln Sen. Bill Avery, chairman of the Legislature's Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, said during floor debate on the resolution that the time is right to eliminate the office.

"We can shake our fist at big government and inefficiency all we want to and get a feel-good feeling, perhaps," he said. "But eventually we need to take action to reduce and streamline government.

"... If we are serious about streamlining government, if we really want to capture some revenue savings, this is a reasonable starting point."

Reach JoAnne Young at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com.

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