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Concerned about the lack of daylight

Rutland treasurer Wendy Wilton sets sights statewide

BRATTLEBORO—Rutland City Treasurer Wendy Wilton wants to bring Rutland’s financial success to the rest of Vermont.

The former Republican state senator is challenging incumbent State Treasurer Beth Pearce for Vermont’s top financial position.

“I’m really good at big picture analysis,” said Wilton.

Wilton said she decided to run for state office after spending 5½ years helping reverse Rutland’s municipal financial picture.

According to Wilton, the city had run itself into the ground. The city Aldermen had spent years trusting the town treasurer more than keeping watch. As a result, the city was suffering from a $5 million deficit.

Finance is what Wilton has been trained to do, she said about her run. She also said she feels that down-ticket offices such as state treasurer are “less political and more technical.”

What helped save Rutland, said Wilton, was her emphasis on transparency. Wilton said she shone a light on all financial reports and spreadsheets, putting them before the Aldermen, and posted reports quarterly online for public viewing.

Allowing the public to be able to look at the state’s checkbook keeps more people honest, said Wilton.

“Transparency was a really important part of the [Rutland’s] fiscal Renaissance,” said Wilton. It is what Wilton said she wants to bring to the state treasurer’s office.

Wilton repeatedly referenced the state’s D-minus “fiscal transparency grade” from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (USPIRG), as an example of opacity in the treasurer’s office.

USPIRG graded Vermont as one of 10 states lagging in providing easily searchable, “checkbook level” details on how the government spends money. USPIRG, however, did not give the poor grade to the treasurer’s office. Instead, the D-minus went to the Vermont Department of Finance & Management.

If elected, Wilton pledged to post more information, such as financial reports and budgets, online.

In a press conference on Oct. 25, Wilton outlined her plan for better transparency and displayed a mock-up of her ideal, transparent, website.

A newly-formed Super PAC called Vermonter’s First has run commercials supporting Wilton.

’Gray clouds’

Vermont has a number of “gray clouds” on its horizon, said Wilton.

Between high income tax, high property tax, and a high estate tax, Vermonters are taxed out, she said.

According to Wilton, the state receives 40 percent of its revenue from the federal government. She suspects the feds will give Vermont a financial “hair cut” in the next budget cycle. The state is facing bigger budget gaps that are harder to fill. Wilton estimates the general fund faces a $50 million to $70 million gap and the education fund about $55 million.

“There’s no easy way to plug those holes,” she said.

Still, Wilton said transparency will help the citizens “meet these challenges together” rather than “a handful of people making the decisions for the state.”

Wilton also said the treasurer’s office has not fared well in recent years. The office has yet to complete a software conversion from one software platform to another that it started in 2005. Wilton pledged to complete this project.

Wilton has also charged that five “whistleblowers” have spoken out against “massive overtime” by some treasurer office employees and bullying from Pearce.

One employee, Laurie Lanphear, deputy director of Retirement Operations, said Wilton, has accumulated 1,000 hours of overtime each year for the past three fiscal years. According to Wilton, this clocking up of overtime does not efficiently use state resources. The practice is also “spiking” these employee’s pensions so they will collect more money in retirement.

This creates a bigger unfunded liability for the state, said Wilton.

According to Wilton, she sent a request for public records to Pearce on Aug. 30, asking for documents showing where the office charged the overtime. The request has not been filled despite the legal deadlines attached, said Wilton.

Wilton has also formally requested outgoing State Auditor Tom Salmon to look into the overtime.

Pearce has told the press that the overtime is in place because offices are understaffed.

’No daylight’

Wilton said she thinks Pearce has steered the treasurer’s office well on a technical level. Pearce, however, lacks vision, Wilson said.

“There’s no daylight between her [Pearce] and the administration,” said Wilton. “She’s been working for that team for a long time.”

The person cutting the checks needs to be more independent from the administration, said Wilton. That’s another reason for more transparency, in Wilton’s opinion.

“I’m very concerned that Vermont has a sustainable future,” said Wilton.

Wilton said she hopes she can help link the citizen legislature with better financial information when it’s making decisions that will impact state finances.

When asked why she thought the treasurer’s race has been so highly charged, Wilton responded, “Because there’s a lot at stake.”

Although Vermont’s financial house is in better order than much of the rest of the nation’s, Wilton said numerous problems, such as the national debt, can harm the state.

Meanwhile, Pearce is saying all is fine, said Wilton.

Wilton is quick to point out that she does not view everything as glass-half-empty. Still, using a phrase from recent Mitt Romney stump speeches, she said she thinks two more years of the status quo won’t work.

’Due diligence’

Calling the state’s triple-A bond rating, “a look in the rearview mirror,” Wilton took issue with Pearce’s stance on health care reform. According to Wilton, Pearce fully supports Shumlin’s attempts to move the state to a single payer health care system, saying it will save the state money.

As an individual, Pearce is entitled to her opinion, said Wilton. As treasurer, her support is “inappropriate.”

According to Wilton, the state has not done its “due diligence” to ensure the system’s financial sustainability. Wilton described Pearce’s opinion as engaging in policy issues because she’s beholden to the Shumlin administration.

Wilton has repeatedly voiced questions and concerns about health care reform in comments to articles on VermontTiger.com, and in a report published through Vermonters for Health Care Freedom.

According to its website, Vermonters for Health Care Freedom is “a 501 (c) (4) organization of individuals and businesses who are deeply concerned about health care reforms being implemented by Governor Shumlin, and seek patient-centered reforms that protect the traditional doctor-patient relationship.”

Wilton said she is the only person to gather five years of health care information from the Joint Fiscal Office. Her model shows that without another funding source, Shumlin’s health care reforms could experience a $2 million deficit.

“I’m not saying it’s bad,” said Wilton. “I’m saying let’s make sure it works.”

We’ll fail if we put policy before economics, she said. And the rest of the country is watching.

Wilton said comments she made in early October questioning her opponent’s commitment to Vermont because Pearce didn’t own a house were “completely misconstrued.”

During an interview with The Commons, Wilton said that it’s not right for every person to own a home, but with Pearce’s $98,000 salary, she can own a house.

People who don’t own property when they can afford it are paying less than their fair share into the education fund, said Wilton.

“I scratch my head about it,” said Wilton. “I’m perplexed.”

Wilton stressed her comments about Pearce, however, did not reflect a bias against renters.

When The Commons contacted Wilton for an interview, she said she wasn’t sure whether she would grant an interview. Wilton asked what region the newspaper served and for the paper to email her its circulation numbers.

She also asked what slant the paper had and said she assumed it was “left of center.” Wilton also asked if the reporter planned to include research on Wilton and then include that research in the article even if she had not discussed it. Wilton said that would not be fair.

More information about Wilton is available at www.wendywilton.org.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #176 (Wednesday, October 31, 2012).

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