State Treasurer Beth Pearce struck back at her Republican opponent Wendy Wilton at a Montpelier press conference on Monday. Pearce characterized the Rutland city treasurer’s recent criticisms of her handling of an IT project and overtime pay as “misinformation,” and she launched fresh attacks on Wilton’s record.
“I have concerns that she’s coming in, at the best, with preconceived notions about issues, without having put them under the microscope first,” Pearce said.
Pearce questioned whether Wilton is ready for the job of state treasurer. She cited Wilton’s lack of experience in issuing bonds, and she said Rutland has been placed on a special bank bond watch list.
She described Wilton’s approach to funding Rutland’s pension liabilities as kicking crucial decisions “down the road.” Rutland city’s pension, Pearce says, is not amortized and payments on that municipal retirement liability have been pushed back year after year.
Wilton has consistently criticized Pearce for the state’s “underfunded” $3 billion pension liability, and she has said the state’s bond rating could be in jeopardy in the future if the state doesn’t address that issue. Pearce says the state’s pension liabilities for state and municipal workers and teachers is being paid down year by year over a 30-year period.
When asked whether Wilton has the qualifications to be state treasurer, Pearce emphasized her own 35 years of experience in fiscal management. “I think I am more qualified to be state treasurer,” she said.
Pearce also criticized Wilton for “flip-flopping” on health care reform. Wilton made a number of public appearances last year in which she made an effort to sow doubt about the financial viability of a single-payer system. When Wilton became the GOP candidate for treasurer, she stopped talking about health care and has been reluctant to take a stance on the issue.
Reporters spoke with Wilton in front of the Statehouse after Pearce’s press conference. “My job is not to worry about the policy at all,” Wilton said. “My job is to be concerned about the fiscal solvency of the state, and whether or not any reforms would harm the state financially … I’ve been saying that for a year.”
Wilton described Shumlin’s health care reforms as a “huge stealth tax increase on Vermont’s middle class” and a “fiscal disaster” in a comment a little under a year ago, on the conservative blog Vermont Tiger.
Wilton didn’t remember writing the remarks, which were among a list of links Pearce compiled for reporters highlighting alleged Wilton’s inconsistencies.
Wilton portrayed Pearce’s attack as an attempt to distract attention from questions she has raised about overtime and retirement system reform at the treasurer’s office.
Pearce’s communications director Dylan Giambatista said the press conference was the first time the treasurer had publicly addressed Wilton’s record and qualifications in any detail.
Former state treasurer Jeb Spaulding, a supporter of Pearce’s campaign and her former boss, couldn’t recall a time recently in which the treasurer’s race was as hotly contested. He said he ran unopposed in his last four elections to the treasurer’s post, and his predecessor, former Gov. Jim Douglas, a Republican, also ran unopposed a number of times.
Pearce, the former deputy treasurer, was tapped by Gov. Peter Shumlin for the position of treasurer after Spaulding became the governor’s secretary of administration. This race is her first run for office.
The state treasurer’s contest is widely seen as the only competitive statewide race this campaign season.
What difference does it make to the average Vermonter whether Wilton or Pearce becomes state treasurer? “It makes a big difference,” Spaulding said. “We’re talking about the state’s financial interests here. … It’s critically important to have someone who knows what they are doing: It’s magnified when they are state treasurer.”
Retired Middlebury College political scientist Eric Davis said that some issues Wilton has raised during the campaign, like fiscal transparency or overtime management, aren’t directly related to the treasurer’s duties, even if they’re admittedly important.
“Put the point in a different way: I haven’t heard Wendy Wilton say very much about bonds, cash management, and pensions,” said Davis, who highlighted those three issues as key responsibilities for any treasurer.
Davis said there is a natural misperception among voters that the treasurer is more of a policymaker than an administrator of the state’s accounts.
Pearce’s criticisms, continued
Wilton said she was unaware of Rutland’s place on a special bond monitoring list maintained by the Vermont Municipal Bond Bank since June 2012. The city’s appearance on the list means Rutland’s bond use and borrowing will be under more scrutiny.
Wilton said the list was internal to the bank, that few government officials saw it and that the city’s appearance on the list had no significant financial implications.
Pearce also said Wilton failed to mention the “material weakness and significant deficiencies” found in the handling of Rutland’s finances, by a 2011 city financial audit.
She said that fact is inconsistent with the Wilton campaign’s assertion that the treasurer has produced the first “clean” audit for Rutland in 32 years.
Wilton said the problems with Rutland’s finances are “minor,” compared with her role in turning around the city’s finances. There were, she said, only “a few findings [in the audit] which we might need to resolve, which we will resolve.”
CORRECTION: The story originally read: ‘Reporters tracked down Wilton on the Statehouse steps after she appeared at Pearce’s press conference.’ It now reads: ‘Reporters spoke with Wilton in front of the Statehouse after Pearce’s press conference. ‘ Wilton never appeared at the press conference.