Secretary of State Doug La Follette’s sudden retirement from the post he’s held for nearly half a century raised questions, particularly when Governor Tony Evers swiftly appointed former state treasurer and Democratic Party political climber Sarah Godlewski to take La Follette’s place.

But it’s the millions of dollars La Follette — and his survivors — could take home in retirement benefits that may really raise eyebrows.

Republicans criticized liberal Governor Tony Evers quick appointment of Godlewski following La Follette’s departure less than three months after the entrenched Democrat began his 11th consecutive term. They said it was political reward for Godlewski bowing out of the Democratic Party’s primary last year, helping to clear the field for former Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes’ failed campaign against incumbent Republican U.S. Senator Ron Johnson.

Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) and others called on Evers to hold a special election for a seat La Follette narrowly won. The governor has such authority under the law.

La Follette is about to bankroll his many, many years as a government employee into a lucrative retirement.

While it’s difficult to say precisely how much the long-time Secretary of State will rake in from taxpayers and the state’s generous retirement system, an analysis in 2017 showed La Follette had “built up quite a nest egg.”

Former State Treasurer Matt Adamczyk, who ran on a platform of eliminating the Wisconsin Treasurer’s Office, estimated La Follette’s retirement account was potentially at a whopping $2.2 million back then.

“Using the ETF [Wisconsin Department of Employee Trust Funds] calculator, that means Doug could retire making over $280,000 per year for the rest of his life. I’m sure many hard-working Wisconsinites would find this way too generous for a guy that has done nothing for 40 years, not 25 years,” Adamczyk said in a press release at the time.

La Follette’s public sector wealth was built on the growth of his Wisconsin Retirement System investments and the taxpayers who generously subsidized a good share of his pension contributions since the 1970s.

As Adamczyk noted, Wisconsin Retirement System information is not made public even though the pensions are backed and paid for by state taxpayers. So, to calculate a single employee’s pension you would need to know their lifetime earnings and job classifications. Even then, it is still a calculated guess, he said.

To figure out a pension balance, first, a percentage of an employee’s income gets added every year in contribution to their retirement account. Second, the account also increases based on how well the State of Wisconsin Investment Board performs. These contributions and interest increases add up significantly because of compounding interest.

La Follette had been earning a salary of $72,551 a year.

State Senator Mary Felzkowski (R-Tomahawk) says she doesn’t begrudge La Follette or any other public employee for collecting on a generous retirement system that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have signed off on over the years. The senator said La Follette, who turns 83 this year, may have actually done Wisconsin taxpayers a favor by delaying retirement for so long.

Maybe not, though.

Adamczyk, who made it a mission to expose the “extremely lucrative benefits going to government employees,” said the government employee’s retirement wealth lives on after he’s gone.

“I was always under the assumption that state employees working very long in some cases did taxpayers a favor by not drawing from their pension. That is not the case,” he said in the 2017 press release. “Even if a person dies while working, their named beneficiary can elect their pension as if they chose the pension on the date of their death. That includes an option for a 15-year guaranteed payment to a named survivor or even a trust fund.”

La Follette is among a long line of state government employees who stand to collect a “1 percenter’s” sum in retirement, including Evers — a longtime government bureaucrat before he was first elected governor in 2018.

“Any discussion concerning the level of compensation for government employees must take into consideration the generous taxpayer-funded pensions and fringe benefits that are part of the equation,” said State Sen. Duey Strobel (R-Saukville). “You’d be hard-pressed to find comparable benefit packages in the private sector. The fact that there are former government employees in Wisconsin collecting annuities that are on par with or in excess of their highest salary is evidence of this reality.”

If liberal Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz is elected to the Wisconsin Supreme Court in next week’s spring election, she could be the majority liberal vote on the court that undos Wisconsin’s Act 10. Former Republican Governor Scott Walker’s signature law reformed public sector collective bargaining in Wisconsin, giving back power to taxpayers and limiting the outsized bargaining strength of government unions. Act 10, which has saved taxpayers billions of dollars over the past decade-plus, required public employees to contribute a portion of their salaries to their pensions and health insurance.

Protasiewicz, who protested against the bill in 2011 and signed the recall petition against Walker, has said Act 10 is unconstitutional despite the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s earlier finding that it is. She told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel she would consider recusing herself from cases involving Act 10.

“I’d have to think about it,” Protasiewicz said. “Given the fact that I marched, given the fact that I signed the recall petition, would I recuse myself? Maybe. Maybe. But I don’t know for sure.”

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M.D. Kittle is the National Political Editor for The Star News Network.
Photo “Doug La Follette” by Doug La Follette. Background Photo “Wisconsin State Capitol” by Vijay Kumar Koulampet. CC BY-SA 3.0.