copyright the Chronicle, 10-24-12
by Tena Starr
BARTON — Wendy Wilton says she wants to be state treasurer for two reasons: She believes Vermont is facing a looming financial crisis that is not being addressed, and its finances need to be absolutely transparent to every ordinary citizen.
She’d like to put the state’s financial information online where anyone can look up, say, how much is spent on State Police, or Human Services — a first step to a more vibrant and informed dialogue on how and where Vermont spends its money, she said in an interview last week.
Ms. Wilton, a Republican, took all the vacation time she had coming to her as Rutland treasurer and decided to spend the lot of it campaigning for state treasurer. Last week she was far from home, traveling the Northeast Kingdom. She stopped in Barton to outline the reasons why she thinks she’s the best person for the job.
Her main opponent is Democrat Beth Pearce, who was appointed by Treasurer Jeb Spaulding in 2011 after Governor Peter Shumlin named Mr. Spaulding secretary of administration. Ms. Pearce was Mr. Spaulding’s deputy treasurer.
Ms. Wilton paints a bleak picture of Vermont’s financial future. The state gets 40 percent of its revenue from federal sources, she said. “Of the $5-billion we raise and spend every year, $2-billion comes from the feds.”
Most of that has either been from President Barack Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act or from settlements with tobacco companies, she said. “We are so highly dependent on this federal money. For the past few years the Legislature has been plugging budget holes with stimulus and tobacco money.”
Both sources are either gone, or will be soon, however. And Ms. Wilton fears that Vermont has not planned for what that means. In addition, she said some state budgets, such as Human Services, are out of control. And the big elephant in the room, she said, remains $1.2-billion in unfunded liabilities for state employees’ and teachers’ retirement funds.
But all is not lost, Ms. Wilton said. “The sky isn’t falling.” However, the time to start tackling projected deficits and pension problems is now, and she argues that Ms. Pearce has failed to develop an adequate plan for addressing matters like how to fund retirement accounts.
Ms. Wilton has run an aggressive campaign, accusing her opponent of all sorts of malfeasance, ranging from mismanagement of the treasurer’s office to deliberately avoiding support of the education system by renting, instead of owning, a home.
The mellower Pearce campaign has occasionally fired back, saying that the decision to rent or buy bears no relationship to one’s commitment to the state, and that Ms. Wilton should end “unfounded attacks.”
Last week, Ms. Wilton wrote a letter to State Auditor Tom Salmon asking for an independent audit of the state treasurer’s office. Among other things, Ms. Wilton is questioning what she calls excessive overtime expenses in the treasurer’s office.
Ms. Pearce’s campaign has not denied that there has been considerable overtime, but said the treasurer’s office expenses have come in under budget. The overtime in question largely went to one employee, who worked about 3,000 hours in overtime between 2010 and 2012, mostly because of personnel shifts or retirement, which left that employee doing the work of three people, according to Ms. Pearce in a story by VTDigger. The work is related to a new computer system.
The race for treasurer isn’t usually contentious or high visibility, but it is this year. The chairmen of the House and Senate Appropriations committees, as well as the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee — all Democrats — have endorsed Ms. Pearce, saying the race could be closer than expected. Ms. Pearce, who has 35 years experience in public finance, was featured by Bond Buyer magazine as one of ten trailblazing women in public finance.
Ms. Wilton doesn’t hesitate to criticize her opponent. She also touts her own accomplishments. Recently, the Vermont Municipal Clerks and Treasurers’ Association named her Treasurer of the Year. In Rutland, where she was elected treasurer in 2007, she said that she eliminated a $5-million deficit. Last year, Rutland had a $3.8-million surplus.
That dramatic shift was accomplished primarily through transparency, she said. With the use of technology and timely reporting, city officials were able to see that the shortfall was in the water and sewer departments rather than the general fund, and rates needed to be raised in order to keep up with costs, Ms. Wilton said.
“The board had not had timely information to keep the rates up” so they couldn’t budget properly, she said. “The departments could not tell if they were on track.”
She put raw financial information on the Internet for anyone to see, and that’s exactly what she’d like to do at the state level, although she acknowledges that the much bigger and more complex state financial numbers would have to be simplified or condensed so they’re accessible to anyone.
Vermont is woefully lacking when it comes to government transparency, in many areas, Ms. Wilton said. Having its financial information accessible to the public would improve democracy in her view. Access would at least be a start to a more informed public dialogue.
She said she “ran on transparency” when she sought election as Rutland’s treasurer, and she is running on transparency at the state level.
The treasurer cannot make policy or decide how money is spent — the state Legislature does that. However, Ms. Wilton said, the treasurer can, and should, inform policymakers about the financial consequences of their actions. The office should be apolitical and independent, she said.
The Republican super PAC Vermonters First has spent $28,037 on advertising for Ms. Wilton. Her background includes one term — in 2005-2006 — as a state senator, years spent in banking, and a stint at the Vermont Small Business Development Center.
contact Tena Starr at [email protected]