Candidates for Vermont treasurer Wendy Wilton and Beth Pearce.
Candidates for Vermont treasurer Wendy Wilton and Beth Pearce.
Thursday October 25, 2012

BRATTLEBORO -- Vermont Treasurer Beth Pearce lists debt management, pension administration and "receipt and disbursement of public funds" among her chief duties.

That wouldn't normally be fodder for big election-season headlines.

But the race for state treasurer has turned nasty, with Republican challenger Wendy Wilton blasting the Democratic incumbent's management methods, public accountability and political independence as a recent appointee of the Democratic administration of Gov. Peter Shumlin.

"That would lead me to feel that she may have some bias, and that's not what I think Vermonters want in the person who's looking out for the state checkbook," Wilton said.

Pearce is firing back, defending her record and dismissing what she calls Wilton's "offensive" tactics.

"That's unfortunate," Pearce said. "I think the voters deserve better."

The campaign pits Wilton, who is the City of Rutland's treasurer, against Pearce, who was Vermont's deputy treasurer before taking the department's top job in January 2011 when then-Treasurer Jeb Spaulding became Shumlin's secretary of administration.

Also on the ballot for treasurer are Progressive Don Schramm and Liberty Union candidate Jessica "Jessy" Diamondstone.

But it's been Wilton and Pearce doing battle in recent weeks. In an effort to win her first run for treasurer, Pearce is touting 35 years of experience in governmental finance and points to Vermont's AAA bond rating as proof that the treasurer's office is running smoothly.

That rating allows the state to borrow at much lower interest rates while also benefiting every resident, nonprofit and business in the state, Pearce said.

"I'm never going to do anything that adversely impacts that bond rating," she said.

On her website, www.bethpearce.com, the incumbent also has posted policy papers on issues including "protecting taxpayer dollars" and local investments and energy efficiency and renewables.

And in an interview at the Reformer, she said her office also played a critical role in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene.

Because the state was on solid financial footing, Pearce said, "we were able to advance $155 million in payments out to towns" trying to recover from Irene's flooding.

"This is my life's work," she said of public-sector finance. "I understand numbers. I understand how they impact people's lives."

However, Wilton also is promoting her experience. A former banker, business adviser and state senator, Wilton has been Rutland's treasurer since 2007, when the city faced a $5 million deficit.

"We were able to turn that around to a $3.8 million surplus, or positive fund balance, for the city in about four years," Wilton said. "It shows you that transparency works. That's really why I'm running for the office of state treasurer -- because I want to bring that same level of confidence and transparency to the state office."

"Transparency" is a key word for Wilton: She claims the state treasurer's office does not provide enough regular, easy-to-understand financial reporting and does not adequately advise the legislature and governor's office.

Because of a lack of information, "I believe that the state of Vermont is putting itself in a position where we may not be able to tackle our financial challenges very well in the future," Wilton said in an interview at the Reformer.

Her other concerns, some of which are listed at www.wendywilton.org, include the state's underfunded pensions. Wilton claims those liabilities add up to a $5,000 share for each Vermont resident.

But Pearce contends her office has been making "significant changes" in pension management, including an extensive retooling of investment management.

"Those pensions are safe," Pearce said. "We've got a funding plan in place."

As for transparency, Pearce said there is a wealth of financial information available on the treasurer's website, including details of the state's pension plan. And she denies any partisan bent to her duties as treasurer.

"I am independent," she said. "I report to the citizens and taxpayers of Vermont."

She added that "our office needs to be about professional, nonpartisan financial management."

There has been no shortage, however, of partisan bickering in the campaign. A few examples:

* Wilton has been issuing press releases claiming "gross mismanagement" due to more than 9,000 hours of overtime logged by treasurer's office employees over the past three years.

Pearce acknowledges overtime but says it was necessary to handle increased pressures in the retirement division. She adds that "we're under budget in our office, and the payroll costs are not more, they're less."

* Wilton has said the treasurer's office received a D- rating in transparency and accountability from a national watchdog group.

But Pearce said that is a "disingenuous" argument because the rating applied to the Vermont Department of Finance and Management, a separate office.

* In light of Wilton's state-pension complaints, Pearce pointed out that Rutland is on a state monitoring list for its pension liabilities.

On Wednesday, Wilton acknowledged the list but said Pearce "repeatedly mischaracterized and politicized" the document.

* There has been spending by political action committees to support both candidates. But a group called Vermonters First reportedly has spent more than $100,000 to assist Wilton.

"Frankly, it's not what Vermont is about," Pearce said of the outside spending.

Wilton, however, noted that she is "not coordinating or communicating" with the committee as per federal law. And she takes the investment as a positive sign.

"It looks as if they believe that I have a good shot at winning this office," she said.

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.