AUGUSTA, Maine — When the Republican-controlled Legislature elected Bruce Poliquin state treasurer last December, the Georgetown resident promised to spread the word about the state’s fiscal problems.
The past nine months have shown that Poliquin suffers no shortage of words, or ways to deliver them.
In the past, the public rarely heard from the state treasurer unless there was a change in the state’s bond rating or a sale of abandoned properties. But since taking office in January, Poliquin has taken his message to talk radio at least seven times and has appeared on television on at least three occasions, not counting interviews for news reports. Poliquin is also a prolific blogger, writing close to 20 posts on the treasurer’s website and sending them to subscribers via email.
His posts — colorful, controversial and unflinchingly political — perhaps best illustrate how Poliquin has approached the treasurer’s job.
“I believe that part of my role … is an activist treasurer’s role,” he said. “I’m going directly to the voters of Maine, directly to the people of Maine, and explaining our problems.”
Poliquin’s critics may note his use of “voters” in the previous comment. Some Democrats believe Poliquin, a Republican gubernatorial candidate in 2010, is using the Treasurer’s Office as a platform for higher office. They also refute his message that Maine is broke and overburdened with toxic debt, and that austerity measures and tax cuts are the cure.
The latter was the case for Sen. Cynthia Dill, D-Cape Elizabeth, who last month penned an opinion piece in the Portland Press Herald accusing Poliquin and Gov. Paul LePage of branding Maine as “an unsophisticated salvage state.”
Not only were Poliquin and LePage hyping Maine’s fiscal woes for political gain, Dill argued, they were flirting with a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“Branding Maine as a poor stepchild won’t attract people or business,” she wrote.
Two weeks later, Poliquin responded with an 1,100-word blog post on the treasurer’s website. He mentioned Dill nine times, blaming the senator and Democrats for the state’s fiscal problems and an unfunded liability in the state pension system and for increasing electricity costs by embracing the development of wind power.
Poliquin said his response, recently recast for a letter to the editor in the Portland Press Herald, was an attempt to “correct the record.”
“To go out and be a cheerleader when you don’t have the numbers to back it up — and you don’t — is completely false,” he said.
Some Democrats believe Poliquin crossed the line using the state website to settle a partisan tiff.
The House minority leader, Rep. Emily Cain, D-Orono, described the post as a “personal attack” on Dill.
Cain said she didn’t have a problem with Poliquin using his blog to inform the public of Maine’s financial situation. But that’s not what she’s seeing.
“It’s troubling to me that the current state treasurer isn’t just talking about the facts of Maine’s economy or finances,” she said. “Rather, he’s using the position as a soapbox or bully pulpit. That has dangerous implications for our financial reputation if he’s making false or dramatic statements.”
She added, “I mean, this is not the campaign trail.”
Poliquin denies that his approach to being treasurer is linked to political ambition. However, he would consider “a different opportunity if one presented itself.”
“My only agenda is to serve the state,” he said. “This is an opportunity for me, at age 57, to really get back and help 1.3 million Mainers and help them make this a better place to live.”
Poliquin finished sixth among seven gubernatorial candidates in the 2010 Republican primary. The former financial investor was an enthusiastic campaigner, spending roughly $715,000. His campaign was perhaps most notable for launching negative political ads against early GOP favorite Les Otten.
At the time, political junkies speculated that Poliquin’s ads sapped Otten’s momentum and aided dark horse Paul LePage.
Poliquin eventually joined LePage’s campaign and touted the governor’s fiscal policies. LePage did not forget Poliquin’s loyalty. In December, the governor-elect took the unusual step of publicly endorsing Poliquin for state treasurer, a move that rankled some Republicans.
Poliquin has been energetic in his new position. Under the state Constitution the treasurer and other constitutional officers operate separately from the Governor’s Office and the Legislature. However, Poliquin has been so vocal in his advocacy of LePage’s policies, he often sounds as if he’s part of the administration.
“I decided to help Paul LePage, and I went to work with him immediately,” Poliquin said. “I was committed to helping the governor and making sure we transfer the state into a fiscally disciplined state.”
The state treasurer, the secretary of state and state attorney general are constitutional officers elected by the Legislature. While they are separate from the legislative and executive branches, the positions are inherently partisan.
Still, Mal Leary, a reporter who has covered state politics for more than 35 years, said Poliquin is the most political treasurer he’s seen.
“That’s not to say the other treasurers weren’t political, because they were,” Leary said, adding that previous office holders were often involved in party events and fundraisers.
“He views his role as being different from previous treasurers, commenting on things like the federal deficit, which is tangentially connected to the state treasurer’s job … but certainly not in the tradition of past Maine treasurers,” Leary said.
Very little about Poliquin follows that tradition.
Before the pension and tax reforms were made final in the state’s two-year budget, Poliquin charged into the debate. He held press conferences alongside the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a conservative advocacy group. He also debated opponents of the initiatives on television and radio, and posted podcasts and video on the treasurer’s website.
In a March blog post titled “You’ve got to be kidding!” Poliquin blasted proposals to raise taxes to address the $4.3 billion shortfall.
The pension issue also motivated Poliquin, who frequently tied the unfunded liability to the state’s fiscal outlook, bond rating and ability to attract business and jobs.
In an April post titled “Shot across our fiscal bow,” Poliquin warned that rating agencies’ concerns over the national debt could play out in Maine if lawmakers didn’t embrace pension reforms.
Poliquin has also attempted to curb state borrowing.
In March he submitted legislation that would have expanded the treasurer’s role in fiscal oversight and would have required voter approval for bonds created by quasi-state agencies, such as the Maine Housing Authority.
The proposal received a tepid response. Democrats and some Republicans worried that it transferred too much power from the Legislature to the treasurer. In addition, the construction lobby, which typically leans Republican, worried that the need for voter approval of agency bonds would delay low-income housing and other projects at a time when development is largely stagnant.
The proposal failed to gain lawmakers’ support. However, Poliquin and the LePage administration won the battle to halt state-issued bonds.
Poliquin believes the changes allowed Maine to maintain its bond rating with agencies Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s.
In its analysis released in May, Moody’s justified the rating because the state had adopted pension reforms and paid back money to state hospitals. It also lauded the state’s continued low debt ratio.
The agency expressed some concern that tax breaks would further reduce revenues and leave the state vulnerable amid a slower-than-expected economic recovery. It also noted that the governor’s budget could result in increased costs to municipalities.
“They did not downgrade us; they kept us steady,” Poliquin said. “That’s because we have a group of pro-business, private-sector people running government and they gave us the benefit of the doubt that we can turn this thing around.”
Critics such as Dill disagree. They argue that the austerity measures and the tax breaks will erode public infrastructure and programs that serve the public good. And, while the state has decided to forgo bonding for only the 12th time since 1951, a recent Associated Press report noted that municipalities are taking the opposite approach and taking advantage of record-low borrowing rates.
The tax cuts passed by the Legislature, Dill said, will result in a $400 million hole in next year’s budget.
The impact of the policies Poliquin has been championing is not yet clear. What is clear is that he’s taken an unprecedented approach to the treasurer’s job.
Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, co-chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said Poliquin has helped raise public awareness of the state’s fiscal standing. Nonetheless, Rosen said, he’d prefer that Poliquin had left out the politics in his response to Dill.
“I think that type of exchange is legitimate, but it should probably take place outside of the official status of the office,” Rosen said.
“I simply corrected the record,” he said. “That is my responsibility as an activist treasurer fixing the economic problems of this state.”
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