June 24, 2018
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Purse-strings Poliquin

Michael York | BDN
Michael York | BDN
Bruce Poliquin


State Treasurer Bruce Poliquin, whose debut on the statewide stage came as a Republican gubernatorial candidate who finished sixth in a field of seven, landing fewer than 6,600 votes last June, has inserted himself deeply into the debate over Maine’s indebtedness. His claims about looming state pension shortfalls and outstanding state bond repayments — very much apples and oranges, though he stacks them one on the other — approaches hyperbolic “the sky is falling” tones.

Mr. Poliquin, who enthusiastically campaigned for Gov. Paul LePage last fall, is asking the Legislature to broaden his role as treasurer to hold the purse strings on bond borrowing for state-created agencies. That means agencies such as MaineHousing and the Finance Authority of Maine would have to submit their bonding requests first to the treasurer. He would review them and then put them before voters. Currently, the bonds are sold without input from the treasurer or voters. Voters not using the services of agencies like MaineHousing and FAME are not likely to embrace the borrowing at the ballot booth.

Mr. Poliquin’s proposal also calls for him, as treasurer, to review some $278 million in assorted bonding allocated to the state by the Internal Revenue Service. Though he has back-pedaled on the nature of that review, the concept is seen by legislators as a power grab. At best, making his office a funnel through which this routine borrowing must flow would seriously hamper access to capital.

The broader role Mr. Poliquin seeks to have defined by state law raises the question — yet again — of the wisdom of Maine’s system of having legislators elect the state’s treasurer, attorney general and secretary of state. For decades, these constitutional officers have used their posts as springboards to higher elected office. But the narrow base of support that gets them there — essentially, the votes of the Legislature’s majority party members — and their lack of accountability to Maine voters at large tempt them to grandstand or pursue personally driven agendas.

The case could be made that Maine needs to create the post of lieutenant governor, elected as part of the gubernatorial ticket. In that case, if he had been Gov. LePage’s running mate, Mr. Poliquin’s press conferences and e-mail blasts would make sense as cheerleading for the governor’s initiatives.

Instead, Augusta observers are scratching their heads trying to divine the treasurer’s motives. Is he doing the governor’s bidding, or what he perceives to be the governor’s bidding? Is he trying to launch himself as a candidate for higher office (“Send me to Washington as your senator and I’ll fix the federal debt like I fixed Maine’s,” might be the pitch)?

Mr. Poliquin made his money at a private asset management firm investing nearly $5 billion of worker pension funds, according to his website. He should apply that experience to growing Maine’s pension fund, not making himself the state’s stingy banker.

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