Different views on display in treasurer’s race
By PETER HIRSCHFELD
Vermont Press Bureau | September 10,2012
AP File Photo
MONTPELIER — They’re vying for the same statewide office this fall, but Democrat Beth Pearce and Republican Wendy Wilton will run entirely different races in their quest to win the treasurer’s post.
Armed with a nearly 3-to-1 fundraising advantage, Pearce, a first-term incumbent, has four staffers and a paid intern running a full-time campaign out of offices in the Vermont Democratic Party’s Burlington headquarters.
Appointed to the treasurer’s office by Gov. Peter Shumlin in early 2011, when Jeb Spaulding departed the post to serve as secretary of administration, Pearce has never run for political office.
That doesn’t mean she doesn’t have an early organizing edge over Wilton, a former state senator from Rutland County. Pearce last week hired campaign manager Ryan Emerson, who nearly delivered Democrat TJ Donovan a win in the primary for attorney general.
“We’re looking forward to getting our message out to folks,” Pearce said last week. “My bottom line is about my record, and about the fiscal health of the state. And I’m very proud of that record.”
Wilton, meanwhile, is running a one-woman operation. She’ll get some outside help from a newly sprouted political action committee that will begin airing 15-second television spots today touting her candidacy.
Otherwise, Wilton, who raised less than $35,000 as of the last campaign finance disclosure, is pretty much on her own.
“I have no paid staff, and it was my intention from the beginning not to have any,” Wilton said. “It has been my interest to run a very Vermont-style campaign.”
Pearce’s campaign this fall will look to paint Wilton as an enemy of retiree pension benefits. In a press release announcing Emerson’s hiring, the Pearce campaign said voters have two choices: Pearce, a “consummate professional with nearly 35 years of experience in state and municipal finance,” or Wilton, who, according to Emerson, “believes that cutting retirement benefits for teachers and continuing a failed health care system are the solutions.”
Pearce is leaving the attacks to her staff. In an interview last week, she wouldn’t address her own campaign’s criticism of Wilton’s pension reform proposals.
But it’s clear that she’ll look to use differing views on the health of retiree benefits as a key issue in the campaign.
“We made significant changes and we’re proud of that work,” said Pearce, referencing changes in recent years to retirement plans of both state employees and public school teachers.
The compromise plan, brokered under the administration of Gov. James Douglas, included a combination of reductions in benefits and increases in employee contributions.
“I’m confident over $20 million in savings has been made, per year, for the combined system. I think we need to see how those changes bear out over time,” Pearce said. “We’ve got a plan in place to pay down the unfunded liability by 2038.”
Wilton, too, is eager to make the pension issue a big one in November, though she offers a much less optimistic outlook than Pearce. With an unfunded liability of $3 billion and 65 percent underfunding in the teachers’ plan, Wilton said, Vermont is on the cusp of a crisis.
“The last thing I want to do is reduce pension benefits,” said Wilton, who serves as Rutland City treasurer. “But if we don’t change benefits, then we’re going to need to change contributions.”
Those increased contributions, Wilton said, will need to come either from employees’ paychecks, or from the taxpayers funding their pension plans.
“The Legislature needs to be armed with the real truth to understand what it’s going to take to right the ship,” Wilton said. “(Pearce) wants to do everything except talk about underfunding of these plans and what it could mean for Vermonters.”
Wilton has had trouble finding a receptive audience for her views. The state’s leading pension reform advocate, David Coates, has given his enthusiastic endorsement to Pearce, despite the fact that Wilton’s views more closely resemble his own on the pension issue.
Pearce has also won the backing of the Vermont-NEA teachers’ union, a powerful voice in the pension debate that advocates for the preservation of retirement benefits.