Time To Vote: Here Are The Candidates For Vermont Treasurer

Oct 31, 2016

Should Vermont divest from fossil fuels? Will today’s state employees get the retirement benefits they’ve been promised? Your vote will help determine who’s in charge of answering those questions.

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What's does the treasurer do?

In Vermont, the treasurer's primary responsibilities are to invest state funds, issue authorized bonds, manage the state's cash balances and oversee pension funds for state employees, teachers and some municipalities.

Who is running for Vermont state treasurer?

There are three candidates for state treasurer on the ballot in this general election:

Pearce and Schramm debated each other on VPR's Vermont Edition, and Ngoima was interviewed by VPR's Taylor Dobbs.  

Where are they on the issues?

Below is some biographical information about the three candidates, as well as their stances on these top issues facing the treasurer's office:

Credit Courtesy Murray Ngoima

  • Liberty Union candidate
  • Town of residence: Pomfret
  • Previously ran for treasurer in seven Vermont general elections, most recently in 2014; active in the Liberty Union Party since 1970
  • Artist and arts educator
  • Party website

On managing state pension funds, and the problem of pension fund growth not keeping up with the growing number of retirees drawing down pensions from these funds:

"One of the problems is that people paid in ... people are not making any more [money] relative to the larger economy than we were in the '70s. So wages have not gone up and therefore the amount that could be paid into – but the cost of living has gone up. And I know [Beth Pearce] spoke today about the contributions that state employees have been willing to make, the increased contributions they've been willing to make into the pension fund. And that is fine up to a certain limit. You cannot stretch somebody's budget which is already stretched … I think that those funds can be contributed to by investments, for instance renewable energy … There's tremendous possibilities."

On the state's bonding capacity, and whether the state should ever exceed the recommended borrowing limit to keep its AAA bond rating with Moody's:

"I understand about keeping the $132 [million] borrowing limit. I understand that. I'm not so concerned about [it]. I understand also why [Beth Pearce] is supporting the Moody's AAA bond rating. That is less important than some other aspects of how we view our economy as a whole. And how the state treasurer's office would view the economy of the state of Vermont as a whole is through its investment, primarily through its investment policies. I don't think we should overspend [and] go beyond those limits. But I think it's about using our resources – both financial and other resources – wisely."

On Lake Champlain cleanup, for which the Treasurer's Office has to recommend $1.3 billion in funding sources:

"If we are talking about every citizen in Vermont making an additional contribution, a personal contribution to the cleanup of Lake Champlain, might that not be a matter that could be brought up in Town Meeting? I think that if communities talk, people in small towns discuss that issue as opposed to it being, you know, this huge figure that it will cost – and whatever is estimated, you know, it's going to be more than that. You know, I think it's something we need to, if we feel that we have a stake in something, I think we're more willing to contribute to it …

"I commend Beth Pearce for having identified sources of possible funding. You can begin with that. But I think that over a longer term, I think raising awareness about the fact that we really are all connected, we share this place. What happens in Chittenden County in terms of environmental degradation ultimately will have an effect on what happens in Windsor County or Bennington County."

On divesting state money from fossil fuels:

"We cannot continue to invest, absolutely cannot continue to invest, in fossil fuels. The organization 350.org launched a 'Go Fossil Free' campaign in 2012 encouraging the divestment from fossil fuels. The secretary general of the U.N. has advised insurers and pension funds to divest from fossil fuels, and conversely to invest instead in renewable energy sources ...

"I think that different choices need to be made about what we are investing in. The long-term consequences of investing in fossil fuels lead to a much greater economic loss than we can currently imagine. We've reached 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. That is unsustainable … We need to start right now. And, you know, it's not a question of waiting to see about the market."

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  • Democratic/Republican candidate
  • Town of residence: Barre City
  • Was appointed treasurer in 2011; has won election as treasurer in 2012 and 2014
  • Previously served as deputy treasurer in Vermont, and deputy treasurer in Massachusetts
  • 40 years of experience in financial management, treasury management and government finance
  • Campaign website

On managing state pension funds, and the problem of pension fund growth not keeping up with the growing number of retirees drawing down pensions from these funds:

"It is an issue. We need to continue to take a look at it. We have liabilities in the area of about $1.8 billion in pension liabilities right now. That number will be updated in the next day or two ... What we've done is a financing plan to address that, and we've also honed in on how to make that financing plan more affordable for the taxpayers. Since 2010, we've implemented a number of changes. Employers are investing in themselves, putting a little bit more in, and at the same time we've changed the way we finance some of these things."

Moderator follow-up: Is that enough?

"The big issue right now is taking a look at retiree health care as it fits into the entire picture. And that's a very important piece. We've got a financing plan in place. We're going to continue to monitor it and continue to make changes as we need to."

On the state's bonding capacity, and whether the state should ever exceed the recommended borrowing limit to keep its AAA bond rating with Moody's:

"Let me be very clear: The bond rating does affect the cost of financing. Just [as] at home, if you've got a better credit rating, you get a better interest rate [and] you have more access to the markets. Those are very important considerations for Vermont. But it's also about affordability for the taxpayer. And some of the criteria that we use – debt as a percentage of personal income, debt service as a percentage of revenues – those are designed to help us find out where the level of affordability is. Maintaining discipline is very important."

On Lake Champlain cleanup, for which the Treasurer's Office has to recommend $1.3 billion in funding sources:

"I'm hoping to bend the curve a little bit and take a look at some best practices in prioritization that will lower that cost. I think that's something that we've proved that we've been able to do on other projects, such as the transportation infrastructure bonds."

On divesting state money from fossil fuels, particularly in response to a question from Schramm about keeping coal stock out of the state pension fund.

"I am a member of a group called Investment Network for Climate Risk. The treasurer's office is clearly engaged. We've been working on making our proxy policies and our investment policies more green as we've moved forward. And I think you can have a clean environment and retirement security, and we're working to do both.

"As a fiduciary, I have a responsibility to the 50,000 active, vested and retired members of the fund. So we did studies, and our studies showed that there would be a loss in fossil fuel divestment, so we chose at that point – my vote, and I'm one member of the [Vermont Pension Investment] Committee, granted I am also the treasurer and the vice chair – but I chose to vote based on that.

"We've expanded our studies, and we said that we're going to take a look [there] to see what options exist, what's there and we asked for the folks in the environmental community, advocates for divestment, to help us pick a firm that will now engage in a collaborative study with our existing firm, and we'll see what those results are. We haven't had coal in since April 29, and that's because of market actions with respect to coal, not a specific divestment. And we'll see what the results give us in the study."

  • Progressive candidate
  • Town of residence: Burlington
  • Previously ran for treasurer in every election from 2008 to 2014
  • General manager of Data Systems, a financial software firm; was president of the Onion River Co-op; served 12 years on the Burlington Public Works Commission
  • Progressive Party website

On managing state pension funds, and the problem of pension fund growth not keeping up with the growing number of retirees drawing down pensions from these funds:

"I love these tough questions. I'm going to duck this one ... The pension funds are quite complex and I would rely on financial advisors – as does Beth [Pearce] very much, there's a whole slew of them. And it's really complex."

Moderator follow-up: What are some ways you'd manage the problem?

"Well, I think Beth [Pearce] has made a choice and I think it's an important one. It's called a 'benefit defined pension plan.' Basically, the benefits that we had promised our employees as they contribute to the pension fund, we're going honor those. And that's what I would do. I would do whatever it takes to honor those benefits."

On the state's bonding capacity, and whether the state should ever exceed the recommended borrowing limit to keep its AAA bond rating with Moody's:

"That's a tough question. I certainly would look at it. The ratings seem to be really tied in to Wall Street a lot, and I don't trust Wall Street. I think that I trust Vermont, and I trust the investments that the state makes in local Vermont enterprises – small and medium-sized businesses, co-ops and that type of thing. That's where I feel that the real value is, and if that means at times that we exceed that cap, I'm not as concerned right now. And perhaps I should be, and Beth [Pearce], you can educate me on that."

On Lake Champlain cleanup, for which the Treasurer's Office has to recommend $1.3 billion in funding sources:

"I'm going to duck this question because I'm learning a lot right now from Beth [Pearce] about this. I haven't heard any particular revenues. You've got 60 of them. I think that you're doing a pretty good job of covering the field," Schramm said, addressing Pearce.

On divesting state money from fossil fuels: Schramm noted that divestment is less of an issue than it has been previously, due to the work of the current state treasurer, his opponent Beth Pearce.

"There is a consensus report being developed now … I think divestment is very important. I think that if any of our listeners have stocks in fossil fuel companies right now they would do themselves a financial favor, and the planet and our grandchildren a favor, by divesting from those stocks themselves. I think it's important but I think the state is moving in the right direction and I don't really want to second guess, you know, where we're going to come out with that report."

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Time To Vote: Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 8.

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