March 27, 2011

Poliquin works to be visible treasurer

Traveling around Maine

By Susan M. Cover
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA -- This month alone, State Treasurer Bruce Poliquin has been to Caribou, Naples, Bangor, Lincoln and York.

He's held a State House news conference.

He's got a blog, a Facebook page and videos on YouTube.

He's appeared before Rotary clubs, local Republican committees, a tea party group and construction finance managers.

Nine months after his campaign for governor ended, Poliquin, a Republican, is still on a mission to talk directly to the people of Maine; but instead of driving around in a 35-foot recreational vehicle to promote himself, he's making the rounds in his personal car -- at his own expense -- to talk about the state's pension debt.

"I know historically the treasurer has had a lower profile," he said. "What we're trying to do is inject treasury as being a voice of fiscal prudence to solve our long-term structural problems in the fiscal areas. And it's absolutely critical we do that."

Poliquin, 57, is the most visible state treasurer in recent memory, and his warnings about the state's pension debt have drawn praise from fiscal conservatives and derision from labor leaders.

A Maine State Employees Association lobbyist described him as Chicken Little for his "sky is falling" predictions about the pension system. A former trustee of the retirement system who now works as an attorney representing labor interests said it's "baloney" to call the debt a "monster," as Poliquin has done on more than one occasion.

States across the nation are addressing shortfalls in their pension systems, both as a result of underfunding for decades and the stock market nosedive of 2008. The shortfall in Maine is compounded by a 2028 constitutional deadline to repay the $4.3 billion unfunded actuarial liability in the system that pays benefits to state workers and teachers.

Even labor leaders who oppose the solutions proposed by Gov. Paul LePage acknowledge there's a problem that must be addressed; but they say the aggressive proposal from LePage, and alarming words used by Poliquin, exaggerate the scope of the problem.

Poliquin isn't concerned about his critics.

"It just means folks are weighing in and expressing themselves, and that's what's supposed to happen in a democracy," he said.

Former House Speaker Rep. John Martin said he's concerned that Poliquin is traveling the state spreading "gloom and doom," yet he'll also have to convince bond rating agencies in New York that the state is in a good financial position.

"How is he going to make the picture rosy? Because that's the role of the treasurer and the role of the governor," asked Martin, D-Eagle Lake. "If we end up with the lowering of our rating ... he'll be singularly responsible for that having happened."

In his office in the Burton M. Cross State Office Building, Poliquin keeps a large graphic on his desk that shows the state payments to the pension system that would be required from now until 2028 if nothing changes. The graphic, which is displayed prominently when he talks about the retirement system, shows annual payments growing to $344 million in 2012, $710 million in 2020 and $749 million in 2028.

He argues that those payments, made from the state's general fund, would crowd out needed funding for roads, schools and higher education.

"If I went through my stint as treasurer and ignored this problem, it would be irresponsible, it would be unprofessional; and I do not live my life that way," he said during a recent news conference.

He then explained further why he's so intent on raising public awareness of the problem.

"It is to put pressure on the Legislature and the governor's office to do the right thing," he said. "I look at this job very seriously; and the voters of Maine, the taxpayers of Maine should be aware of this, and I am indirectly asking them to make sure they put pressure on both sides of the Legislature to do the right thing."

(Continued on page 2)

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