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State Treasurer Beth Pearce to step down after six terms in office

A woman smiling in a crowd of people.
Angela Evancie
/
VPR File
State Treasurer Beth Pearce, seen here in 2017, says she counts pension reform, environmental protection and improving financial literacy as some of her top achievements in office.

After serving as Vermont’s top money manager for more than a decade, State Treasurer Beth Pearce has announced that she won’t be seeking another term in office.

Last month, Pearce was diagnosed with cancer. And while she’s optimistic about her prognosis, she says the medical treatments on the horizon don’t lend themselves to life on the campaign trail.

“And that and the existing health problems, I don’t believe I can do an election, go through that process this year, so I will not be seeking reelection,” Pearce told VPR.

During her six terms in office, the 68-year-old Barre resident has overseen major policy reforms related to environmental protection, financial literacy and cash management practices.

And her years of work on pension reform culminated in a bill this year that includes $200 million to shore up the retirement system for public workers.

VPR’s Peter Hirschfeld sat down with Pearce to learn more about her decision not to run for reelection, and hear her reflections on her time in office. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Peter Hirschfeld: So, you have some news that you want to share with your Vermonters. Tell folks what's up?

Beth Pearce: So, thank you, very much. I have been treasurer since 2011. I've been in the treasurer's office for 19 years. At the end of this term, it'll be 19-and-a-half. And I love the job. It's the best job in the state. Some of the others may argue with me about that, the other constitutional officers, but I'm right.

But I've been experiencing some health problems over the last three years. I'm proud of the fact that I've been able to overcome those and do my job. And I believe that I've done a good job. I've got the best staff in the state, so that helps getting my job done.

But I was recently, in April, diagnosed with cancer and [with] that, and the existing health problems, I don't believe I can do an election, go through that process this year. And so I will not be seeking reelection.

Can you talk a little bit about what the process is going to look like in terms of winding down your tenure and handing the baton to whoever happens to be your successor?

Certainly. So the next eight or so months, I'm going to be concentrating on getting everything prepared and ready for the next treasurer, whoever that might be. And I have a staff position that's currently vacant, a senior staff person.

And my goal will be to bring somebody on … to essentially work with me as a consultant, to take a look at the operations, go through all of our internal controls, which we do on a regular basis. We have an internal control committee, and I love that process because it brings people together from different divisions and some cross-training in the process.

But from my end, I want to make sure that everything is wrapped up and there are manuals and materials that I can brief the next treasurer with … And again, I think we've got a great staff that will be there to assist that individual.

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You're working on a lot of important policy considerations right now. If you have to choose a couple that are going to be most important for your successor to advance, to really hit the ground running on when they take over the job, what are they?

Well, one will be the pension. The Legislature is currently looking at [the pension bill]. They passed that — it was a unanimous vote in both chambers.

The governor has vetoed that. But I hope that an override will be sustained. I can't say that for sure. I'm not very good at projecting the political process. I'm more of a of a get-down-to-brass-tacks-and-look-at-those-spreadsheets …

"I'm never going to be that polished person that some of the other elected officials are, but I'm going to say what I believe in. I'm blunt. And I will go out there with some things that may not be popular, but are necessary to have a conversation about."
Treasurer Beth Pearce

I support the bill. It's not everything that I was looking for. But I think it's a good start. And I'm looking forward to implementing that. It's going to be a challenge. There are some complex issues … And for me, those are going to be challenges for the retirement division and our treasury operations division. But they're up to the challenge. They're good people. They're smart people. They're dedicated people. And I'm looking forward to that challenge.

But I also recognize it is going to be a very, very big challenge to implement that, with a very small staff. We're one of the smallest staff in the country on a ratio of staff to clients.

You mentioned not necessarily loving the political part of the universe that you inhabit. When then-Gov. Peter Shumlin appointed you treasurer in 2011, the chattering class was skeptical about how compelling a candidate you would be on the campaign trail.

It worked out for you, obviously. But I'm wondering if you shared people's concerns at the time about your ability to connect with large swaths of voters, and also how you approach the process of becoming someone who had to sell themselves to voters.

When I started, in fact, I said, 'No,’ to the position a couple of times, and eventually said, ‘Yes,’ to both Treasurer Spalding and the governor.

When I started, I was not a complete rookie on this. I had done some political work. My family's very involved in politics. I had done some work in making calls, holding signs, doing those types of things. But I had never run for office — well, I did run for Town Meeting member when I was 20 or 22, in my hometown, and I won. So I have a perfect win record, in terms of elected office. But I really was very, very different.

When I was appointed, one of the blogs or news blogs said that they were surprised because they had never heard of me. They did say I was affable, so I was pleased with that. My first stump speech was so bad that every person in the room — consultants — gave me their business card. So it took a little time to get used to that.

Fundraising was something I hadn't done. I hate it. But it's a necessary part of this too, until we do some reforms in terms of how we manage candidates and dollars for elected office. And I think there is the need for reform. But it was a challenge.

Newspaper and radio and television interviews were very difficult. My speeches were terrible at the beginning.

Part of that was I was trying to look at ways other people did it. And it finally dawned on me that I need to be genuine in who I am and what I am. And I'm a bit of a geek. I said in the Legislature the other day, ‘If you asked me where the a light switch is, I will give you the principles of electricity.’ But as I moved through that and became more comfortable, I was able to project who I am.

I'm never going to be that polished person that some of the other elected officials are, but I'm going to say what I believe in. I'm blunt. And I will go out there with some things that may not be popular, but are necessary to have a conversation about. And I think that I'm able to reach individuals because of that and because of my ability to really talk specifics and not election jargon.

More from Brave Little State: What's Going On With Vermont's Pensions?

The field that you exist in — economics, finance — the gender gap there is notoriously pronounced. How have you seen that gender disparity play out in your career in finance?

My first job was as a labor market economist for the CETA program — the Comprehensive Employment Training Act — when I left college in 1976. There was a recession looming, and this was skilled training programs for individuals that wanted to enter the job market … And I went to my first labor market meeting, and a gentleman looked at me and said, ‘Are you the secretary?’ And my response was, ‘No, I called this meeting.’ And so it was a struggle in the beginning.

It's better, but it's nowhere near where it should be. For women, for folks that are marginalized, it's nowhere near what it should be. And we need to concentrate on that …

And I hope that we can get more young girls into mathematics, the STEM programs. And that's about role models as well … So I do what I can there. And the other piece is through my actions, showing that women can achieve, that they can be out there in very technical fields. And I'm proud of them.

Peter Hirschfeld: We're talking less than 24 hours since the leaking of a draft Supreme Court decision that would overturn Roe v. Wade. How do you interpret what you're seeing on the national stage right now when it comes not just to abortion rights but to other civil rights?

It's appalling. I think some of that is residual from the Trump administration. And we've gone backwards. I'm worried about that court decision. It is a step absolutely in the wrong direction. Environmental issues — the prior administration was terrible at it. And they worked with the Securities Exchange Commission and other bodies to pull back from progress … And we need to take a look at how we address that hate …

And for me, it's about education. It's about experience, and changing that.

But it's been a tough time for the country, very divisive. When I came home one day after a meeting and took a look at what was happening on Jan. 6 — this is a critical time for our country to come together to make change. And I'm very hopeful that the current administration, President Biden, and his staff, will be able to change that.

I would imagine that a cancer diagnosis fuels some introspection about life and what it all means. And I'm wondering how this new lens has reshaped the way you see the work that you've done and the work that you do?

Well, the diagnosis was in April, so I'm just beginning that process to understand and work through that. I'm not a woe-is-me type of person. I look at things and say, ‘These are things I can control. And these are things that I can't,’ and work on things that I can control. So, I'm looking at this and saying, ‘What are the things I need to do over the next several months, in the next year, or whatever it might be?’

I fully expect that I will recover. I don't know that for sure. But I'm looking at that in terms of optimism, and looking at the steps and being very careful.

I have some staff that watches out for me, by the way, and says, ‘Don't forget this appointment, and do this.’ But I'm going to pay attention to what the doctors tell me and work through that process.

But I'm not someone that looks back and says something like, ‘I should have done this in the past, I wish I had done this, I regret taking a job in whatever.’ That's not productive. What is productive is to look and say, ‘How can I improve what I'm doing now? What can I take from that and apply it to the future?’ And I'm going to look at this as a challenge. And I hope and believe that I'm going to be up to the challenge.

When folks look back on your tenure as treasurer, what do you want to be remembered for?

Well, I think we've done a lot on pensions prior to the recent bill. If you add up what we did over the years, it's about $1.3 billion, or actually closer to $1.5 billion, in savings to the system and to the taxpayer …

But we've done more than that. I think we've improved the cash

"But I'm not someone that looks back and says something like, ‘I should have done this in the past, I wish I had done this..."
Treasurer Beth Pearce

management system and our ability to project, which was very helpful during the Great Recession.

We've looked at financial literacy and taking that to the next step. We're looking to work even further on that in terms of working … with marginalized individuals, looking at a program to work with ex-offenders …

The environment, natural resources — I was able to complete that report on clean water. And by the way, that involved 23 stakeholder meetings with 1,000 people. And I think that report really spurred the direction and the resources that were applied to address our natural resources and clean water.

I supported the recent Global Warming Solutions Act, did a lot to work with legislators to explain and bring home the issues around economic development. This is an economic issue in this state. We have a big tourism business — taxes come in from the fees and employment — and I looked at it and brought that into the conversation.

We have a program called ABLE — Achieving a Better Life Experience. It's a program to help individuals with disabilities save for the future, and overcome some of the limits that folks have in various assistance programs, so they can put money aside and have independence down the road.

What are you looking forward to most about not being treasurer?

Not being treasurer is going to be tough. I've worked a lot of hours. I've been there all hours in the night. And security, by the way, had to get used to that — come down and see me at 2 o'clock or 3 o'clock in the morning, the lights on. So I think there's going to be some withdrawal from that. So I'm looking at ways to compensate for that.

And I hope to be involved in issues at the national level in, in government, accounting and government finance and continuing to push the issue of pensions and the right to have … financial wellbeing in your retirement years, and to have dignity in retirement …

I'm hoping to come back and talk to the Legislature about a few of those issues where I can, recognizing that I have a treatment program that's going to go forward.

I am looking at hobbies. I play a lot of chess … I love poetry. I love to read poetry, and I also want to be an advocate for healthcare, and the need to reach folks that do not have the same opportunity in health care. I have a good insurance program, and they were able to catch it rather early. Folks that don't have those diagnostic services, folks that do not have a physician on a regular basis — there's a report out there about lack of access in the waiting time.

There's an issue of dignity there in the cost to the state and the federal government for those services, and the impact it has on a person. And I, I hope to be able to advocate on that.

Treasurer Pearce, I really appreciate your time.

Thank you. I think that the message for me is that you can work to overcome issues and challenges in your life, whether it's in the treasury, whether it's in my personal life, whether it's in some of the volunteer work that I do, and I hope to address this challenge.

I have every expectation that we will have a good result at the end. And I'm going to take the advice of my doctors and make sure that I do the right thing. That's a little difficult for me because I have so many activities that I'm involved in …

I'm hoping that the next treasurer is able to build on my work … And I think that's a challenge that I have. And I want to look at the challenges.

It's not about, you know, getting depressed about issues and your health care. It's about meeting challenges and saying, ‘I'm going to overcome this, I'm going to succeed in addressing my health and the issues, whether it's nonprofit, or professional, down the road.’

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Peter Hirschfeld:

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