GEORGIA — The Republican candidate for State Treasurer says that something needs to be done about the state’s pension fund immediately.
“That’s my biggest area of concern regarding the treasurer’s position, is that retirement fund,” said Carolyn Branagan, a former State House representative and Franklin County senator. “We are in trouble financially. It’s in the hole, it’s starting to reach out and harm other areas of our state and we’ve got to fix it.”
She notes a report issued last year by the Vermont Business Roundtable saying the state pension fund is badly underfunded and that efforts made to shore it up haven’t gone far enough.
“They put out a terrific report and I don’t think anybody read it,” Branagan said. “It was distributed throughout the State House, including to the money committees, and I think it was just filed on a shelf, nobody looked at it.”
She said the fund is behind by $4 billion and it’s starting to affect other areas of state finances.
Branagan said the first thing she wants to do if elected treasurer is begin annually stress testing the fund to see where its weaknesses are or would be during times of recession, or if there were ever miscalculation or error regarding the fund.
She said getting lawmakers to consider the fund is difficult at the best of times given its complexity and, frankly, dull nature of the issue.
“I think most legislators simply don’t understand the issue, they haven’t had a chance to study it and it’s as dry as yesterday’s toast, but you have to look at it because it’s going to be a fiscal disaster if we don’t tackle this,” Branagan said. “I will definitely make it my number one priority if elected to the treasurer position.”
Branagan said she aims to keep the treasurer’s office largely out of politics and to stick to working on state financial matters, but she’s also a fan of the incumbent, Beth Pearce’s, efforts and plans to make financial literacy a bigger part of Vermonter’s lives, especially young students.
Branagan is the daughter of dairy farmers who also pursued post-secondary education.
Her father got a degree through the GI Bill while her mother was a registered nurse who studied in Brooklyn.
“So I always knew I would go to college, so I went to the University of Vermont,” Branagan said. “I have a bachelor’s degree from there and I also have a master’s degree in public school administration from UVM.”
While going to school, she would return home to work on the farm. Ultimately she went into teaching in Fairfield, working her way up to principal.
“Back in those days it was fashionable to pick a teacher for what they called a teaching principal,” she said. “They would pick one teacher that they thought was a good teacher and that person would do administrative work for half the day and try to spread the understanding of how to be a good teacher among the rest of the staff.”
Branagan ramped down her teaching career after she had children and spent 20 years as a stay-at-home mother while volunteering and serving roles in town government. She was on the school board when something happened that spurred her into seeking a lawmaker’s seat in Montpelier.
“I got mad,” she said. “I got mad over Act 60. I felt that Georgia was losing votes. We would work our tails off on the school board and then lose the vote because the tax rate was going up too high. We had worked hard before then to keep the tax rate low, so I wanted to go to Montpelier to try to straighten out Act 60.”
She won her seat in the House in 2002.
“The biggest lesson I learned was how important it is to listen to people,” she said. “It isn’t important what the politician thinks… it’s what the person you listen to thinks. People rule from the bottom up and if you don’t listen to them they’ll take that out at the ballot box either by defeating the budget or by defeating the amendment you want on the floor at Town Meeting; they will tell you which way you should go.”
Her first year in office was the last year Republicans had control of the Legislature.
Initially she was frustrated that the Republican leadership at the time did not seem willing to capitalize on the advantage, but now sees there is wisdom in moving slowly.
Her time in state government was also extremely instructive, worth a master’s degree or two in everything from roadwork to water quality.
She said she’s proud of the work she did on the House Committee on Ways and Means, keeping taxes and fees to a minimum, but also working with others to get state recognition for the Missisquoi band of the Abenaki, many of which reside in Franklin County.
The state recognition allows people recognized as members of the tribe to be eligible for certain grants and they can also label their artwork as being Abenaki-made, boosting its value.
The state’s Current Use land program and child nutrition were also areas she had interest in while serving in the House.
Branagan said she felt like much of her work was benefiting all of Franklin County, and so opted to run for Senate.
She won and took her seat in 2016, serving only one term, despite planning to be there for a long time.
“The reason I didn’t run for a second term was because I had cancer,” she said. “I had to get out of there and go to the hospital. I got treated down at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. Now I’m done with that, they don’t want to see me down at Dana-Farber for another six months.”
Branagan had been diagnosed with melanoma, a deadly form of skin cancer.
“I think I got it because I’m a farm kid,” she said. “Every summer, starting in eighth grade on the last day of school I put on a bikini top and cut-off jeans and I got on the tractor, and I drove the tractor through the hay field. I ran the rake, I ran the hay wagon, every day I drove the tractor and I had a gorgeous tan until the summer I got married when I was 22 years old. Then I paid for it.”
She said it took eight surgeries, but her doctor’s say she’s cancer-free. Branagan speaks highly of the care she received at Dana-Farber.
“I’m not going to sit at home and wait for it to come back, I’m going to get out and do something,” she said.