MIDDLEBURY — Rutland City Treasurer Wendy Wilton likes a challenge. So after helping her hometown get its once-disheveled fiscal house in order, the Rutland Republican now has her sights set on the state treasurer’s office. On Nov. 6, she hopes to unseat incumbent state Treasurer Beth Pearce, a Barre Democrat (see related story).
“This is the first time the treasurer’s office has been a competitive race in 20 years,” Wilton said during a recent interview with the Addison Independent. “There are some big issues at stake.”
Wilton, 53, is a former banker and senior business adviser who served as a Rutland County state senator from 2005-2006. After an unsuccessful re-election bid, Wilton said she was encouraged to run for treasurer for the city of Rutland, which she did successfully. She has served in that capacity since 2007, a five-year tenure during which Wilton said she was instrumental in helping the city rebound from a $5 million budget deficit to a $3.8 million fund balance. Last month, she was named “Treasurer of the Year” by the Vermont Municipal Clerks and Treasurers’ Association.
It was this past May that Wilton announced her plan to run for state treasurer.
“What I see is some coming challenges for the state,” Wilton said. “There are three main things that put me over the edge, in terms of running for (state treasurer).”
Those three issues, according to Wilton, are:
• Bringing greater transparency to the state treasurer’s office. The office, she said, does not offer lawmakers and the public quick enough, nor comprehensive enough, access to financial data about the state budget, the state’s performance against that budget and Vermont’s spending priorities.
Wilton cited Oklahoma and Ohio as examples of states that have put together outstanding websites for the dissemination of financial data.
“What (Oklahoma and Ohio) have got is a website that essentially a layperson can get on and really see, at a glance, ‘What’s our state budget and how are we performing?’” Wilton said. “This is a foundation for democracy. What we really need is civic financial literacy, and that’s what this does.”
The state could upload the necessary information onto such a treasurer’s website without much effort, according to Wilton.
“It isn’t that hard,” Wilton said. “You might have to condense and simplify (the information) a little bit.”
Wilton noted her “transparency” theme has resonated with Vermonters she has encountered along the campaign trail.
“When I talk to people about this, they shake their heads and say, ‘Yeah, that would be great,’” Wilton said.
A lack of timely information was part of the city of Rutland’s financial downfall a decade ago, according to Wilton. The city treasurer’s office, according to Wilton, had not provided timely updates and had routinely under-budgeted.
“We would not have been able to achieve our financial recovery without the level of transparency that I provide to the city today,” Wilton said. “When I took office, we started reporting, on a routine basis, accurate, timely information.”
She made those updates available on-line and in real time to the city officials, and the public through the treasurer’s website.
“Without sharing this stuff broadly, the city of Rutland could not have had constructive dialogue after this huge mess,” Wilton said.
“This way’s key.”
• Tending to what Wilton said are $3 billion in unfunded liabilities for the state employees’ and teachers’ retirement funds. Wilton noted that $1.2 billion of that sum is associated with unfunded pension commitments.
“If we don’t address this sooner rather than later, we are leaving this for future taxpayers and employees in a way that would be unfair to either one of those groups,” Wilton said.
Solving the retirement fund problems will require working with an actuary and the stakeholders in making some systemic changes in the way the state and its employees and teachers fund the programs, according to Wilton. She said the amount of revenues needed to pay the promised benefits is simply not keeping up. The panacea might require the state and affected workers to ramp up their contributions to the retirement fund, while holding impending retirees harmless.
“We need to look at a multi-pronged solution and some shared responsibility to fix the structural problem first,” she said. Without first fixing the structure, you’re continually adding to the underfunding while you’re trying to pay it off.”
Absent a solution, Wilton said the state’s financial standing and stellar bond rating will suffer and the employees will not get the payments they were promised. She does not believe the state should instead adopt 401k plans for its employees, saying the solvency of the current retirement fund is dependent on contributions from new employees.
• Advising the Legislature in dealing with some of the most “monumental financial challenges” the state has faced in more than a decade. Those challenges, Wilton said, include a potential general fund deficit of $50 million to $70 million; a $55 million shortfall in the state’s education fund; and a $16 million downgrade in state revenues.
She noted 40 percent of Vermont’s budget revenues are derived from federal funds. And the financial news out of Washington, D.C., has not been good, of late.
“That is a very precarious situation,” she said of Vermont’s reliance on federal funds.
The state, Wilton added, has been filling its budget gaps in recent years with one-time federal stimulus money and tobacco settlement funds. That money will soon dry up, she said.
“When you think about these tough budgetary challenges we have, just for this fiscal year alone … it’s really going to be tough for (lawmakers),” she said. “I really think what’s needed in the treasurer’s office is someone who’s been through a tough experience like I have in Rutland and who’s unafraid to tell people the truth. I am independent enough of the Legislature and the administration to really hold up that mirror for folks.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]