Debt Hawks, Income Tax Advocate, Others Vie For Washington State Treasurer

Debt Hawks, Income Tax Advocate, Others Vie For Washington State Treasurer
A key role for the Washington State Treasurer is advising lawmakers on what it takes to balance expenditures and revenues. Photo: youaskalotofquestions.com.

In Washington, state debt is $20.6 billion. As of January, it had grown just three percent over the last two years but a year before, the state revealed it was up 27 percent over five years. Last year, the Tax Foundation ranked Washington ninth highest of 50 states in per-capita state and local debt. The five contenders for replacing the retiring top finance officer of Washington, State Treasurer James McIntire range from two debt hawks to an advocate for a progressive income tax and state investments in alternative energy.

At A Glance

  • Democrat John Comerford has banking and public sector finance experience. He stakes out activist territory on several issues and wants a state income tax.
  • Republican Duane Davidson is a long-time county treasurer who touts cutting debt.
  • Democrat Alec Fisken has two decades of experience in public and private finance. He says the state fiscal status quo is good but warns against the volatility of a capital gains tax.
  • State Sen. Marko Liias (D-21) has been a lawmaker for eight years and founded a small green construction company. Liias covers populist ground.
  • Republican Michael Waite manages almost $11 billion in assets in the private sector, and is a strong debt hawk.

Taking The Long View

Outgoing incumbent Mcintyre told Lens the focus of the treasurer’s role is ensuring the “revenue is going to be there over 25 years” to pay for state spending. “We have a longer term perspective. It’s useful to have someone in state government that is going to say, ‘You have to make sure you can track this over time.’”

McIntire said the job requires a combination of good financial decision-making along with a firm understanding of how government operates. “The state treasury function is a core state service,” he said. “It’s something that helps funds all of the agencies, all of state government. So you have to have appreciation for those different functions.”

Among the responsibilities of the state treasurer is handling the cash transactions of all major state accounts. That amounts to more than $400 billion annually. The officeholder sets policy for investing the state’s active balance, and issues general obligation bonds to finance state projects. The treasurer serves on the State Investment Board, State Finance Committee, and the Economic Development Finance Authority.

Nearly all the candidates have a background in finance, and several in government.

Activist Agenda

John Comerford was vice chair of the Investment Advisory Board for the City of Seattle and served as president of the National Consumer Cooperative Bank.  He told Lens the treasurer’s office hasn’t “utilized the bully pulpit” enough.

He said he would push for more state investments in alternative energy sources and closing existing tax incentives. He also supports a progressive income tax, and a constitutional amendment, if required, to implement it.

Comerford has raised $34,000. He has been endorsed by state senators Bob Hasegawa (D-11) and Maralyn Chase (D-32), along with state representatives Gael Tarleton (D-36) and Luis Moscoso (D-1). Other backers include Seattle City Council President Bruce Harrell and Council Member Mike O’Brien.

County Treasurer

Duane Davidson is serving his fourth term as Benton County treasurer. He said he has cut general obligation debt in half since he took office in 2003, and would look at ways to reduce state debt, if elected.

He said he would be “an advocate for good fiscal conservatism in government.”

He previously served as the chief financial accountant of the county. He is also the president of the Washington State Association of County Treasurers (WSACT).

Davidson has been endorsed by Secretary of State Kim Wyman, former secretary of state Sam Reed and 30 Republican and Democratic county treasurers. He has raised $23,000.

City Finance Advisor, Banker, Investor

Alec Fisken has 20 years of investing and banking experience. That includes serving as the financial advisor for the City of Seattle. A former Seattle Port commissioner, Fisken has been endorsed by McIntire.

Fisken said he views the treasurer as a facilitator who can advise lawmakers on what passes the smell test, and what does not. He said he would warn lawmakers proposing a capital gains tax to fund basic education that it “really is volatile. That’s not just a Republican complaint.”

Fisken has raised $28,000. Among his top contributors is the Washington State Federation of State Employees/AFSCME Council 28. Fisken has also been endorsed by former state treasurer Dan Grimm.

Lawmaker, Entrepreneur

In 2014, Marko Liias joined the State Senate, where he is now a ranking member of the transportation committee. He served in the State House for six years prior. Before that, he was on the Mukilteo City Council and co-founded a small green construction firm. In 2014, his appointment to a $65,000-a-year part-time post with the City of Mukilteo sparked controversy.

Repeated calls to Liias were not returned. On his campaign web site he states, “Our next Treasurer must ensure that tax dollars are wisely managed, but we need someone who will also stand up for struggling middle class families.” He said he would “fight for retirement security for our families while standing up to Wall Street to get taxpayers the best deal for our state’s investments.”

Liias has raised $58,000, with his top contributors the Puget Sound Pilots PAC, and the Washington State Council of Firefighters and the Washington Education Association PAC. His endorsements come from similar special interests and a bevy of House and Senate Democratic lawmakers.

Asset Manager, Ex-Gates Investor

Michael Waite manages more than $10.7 billion in assets as the senior vice president at Bentall Kennedy. He previously worked at Cascade Investment, the private investment firm of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates. Waite told Lens the role of the treasurer is to “really drive value from the taxpayer’s dollars.”

Waite’s campaign web site features a running ticker on the state’s growing debt. He adds, “when the state spends $2 billion dollars a year” in interest payments “because of the credit card bills run up by past politicians…we miss out on funding our real priorities, like schools, public safety, and protecting the most vulnerable members of our society.”

Waite is opposed to a progressive state income tax. He told Lens it would rob Washington of its “big competitive advantage” to attract and retain businesses.

So far Waite has raised $81,000, more than any other candidate in the race. One top contributor is the National Electrical Contractors Association. Endorsers of Waite include former Republican state attorney general Rob McKenna and several GOP state senators.

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