Although Bruce Poliquin is now state treasurer, with the obligation to monitor the state’s finances, his recent rhetoric still resembles his turn as a Republican candidate for governor, when he ran on a platform of state spending run amok.

In doing so, we fear Poliquin is both confusing and over-simplifying a complex issue — the state’s indebtedness — and perhaps sending an inaccurate message about the conditions of Maine’s finances.

The looming crisis, which Poliquin rightly pointed out in a press conference earlier this week, is a $4.3 billion unfunded liability in the retirement program for state employees and teachers. According to the Maine Constitution, it must be fully paid off by 2028. That means the state will have to set aside $450 million next year to pay down the debt, which Poliquin said could crowd out other programs when the next budget is balanced.

The pension debt was incurred decades ago when long-gone lawmakers promised benefits without putting aside the money to pay for them. That practice ended years ago, but keeping up with the payments is still a struggle.

The unfunded liability is in the news now not because of irresponsible actions by current or recent lawmakers, but as a result of the economic downturn, which lowered the value of the pension system’s investments. So many states are strapped in their pension systems that Congress is reportedly considering how to extend them bankruptcy protections. And, as The New York Times reported Thursday, at least one major bond-rating agency will begin considering pension obligations in evaluating the creditworthiness of states. This is not good news for Maine.

There is no change to future employees’ benefits that will cut the cost of promises made long ago, however. It is a good idea, as Poliquin suggests, to consider making adjustments to the new employees’ retirement plans to bring them into line with private businesses and make them less expensive in future budgets.

But what’s most important is how the state will meet its obligation to retirees. The current Legislature and the governor will have to strike the delicate balance of making sure the state pays its bills while funding the most important functions of government. It won’t be easy, and paying off the unfunded liability will likely result in program cuts elsewhere. But turning phrases like “fiscal tsunami,” to describe Maine’s current fiscal condition, as Poliquin has done, seems inflammatory.

We have great challenges ahead, to be sure. Alarmist language won’t help solve anything.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.