AUGUSTA – This month alone, State Treasurer Bruce Poliquin has been to Caribou, Naples, Bangor, Lincoln and York.

He’s held a State House news conference.

He’s got a blog, a Facebook page and videos on YouTube.

He’s appeared before Rotary clubs, local Republican committees, a tea party group and construction finance managers.

Nine months after his campaign for governor ended, Poliquin, a Republican, is still on a mission to talk directly to the people of Maine. But instead of driving around in a 35-foot recreational vehicle to promote himself, he’s making the rounds in his personal car — at his own expense — to talk about the state’s pension debt.

“I know historically the treasurer has had a lower profile,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is inject treasury as being a voice of fiscal prudence to solve our long-term structural problems in the fiscal areas. And it’s absolutely critical we do that.”

Poliquin, 57, is the most visible state treasurer in recent memory, and his warnings about the state’s pension debt have drawn praise from fiscal conservatives and derision from labor leaders.

A Maine State Employees Association lobbyist described him as Chicken Little for his “sky is falling” predictions about the pension system. And a former trustee of the retirement system who now works as an attorney representing labor interests said it’s “baloney” to call the debt a “monster,” as Poliquin has done on more than one occasion.

States across the nation are addressing shortfalls in their pension systems, both as a result of underfunding for decades and the stock market nosedive of 2008. The shortfall in Maine is compounded by a 2028 constitutional deadline to repay the $4.3 billion unfunded actuarial liability in the system that pays benefits to state workers and teachers.

Even labor leaders who oppose the solutions proposed by Gov. Paul LePage acknowledge there’s a problem that must be addressed. But they say the aggressive proposal from LePage, and alarming words used by Poliquin, exaggerate the scope of the problem.

Poliquin isn’t concerned about his critics.

“It just means folks are weighing in and expressing themselves and that’s what’s supposed to happen in a democracy,” he said.

Former House Speaker Rep. John Martin said he’s concerned that Poliquin is traveling the state spreading “gloom and doom,” yet he’ll also have to convince bond rating agencies in New York that the state is in a good financial position.

“How is he going to make the picture rosy, because that’s the role of the treasurer and the role of the governor?” asked Martin, D-Eagle Lake. “If we end up with the lowering of our rating … he’ll be singularly responsible for that having happened.”

In his office, Poliquin keeps a large graphic on his desk that shows the state payments to the pension system that would be required from now to 2028 if nothing changes. The graphic, which is prominently displayed when he talks about the retirement system, shows annual payments growing to $344 million in 2012, $710 million in 2020 and $749 million in 2028.

He argues that these payments, made from the state’s General Fund, will crowd out needed funding for roads, schools and higher education.

“If I went through my stint as treasurer and ignored this problem it would be irresponsible, it would be unprofessional, and I do not live my life that way,” he said during a recent news conference.

He then explained why he’s so intent on raising public awareness of the problem.

“It is to put pressure on the Legislature and the governor’s office to do the right thing,” he said. “I look at this job very seriously and the voters of Maine, the taxpayers of Maine should be aware of this and I am indirectly asking them to make sure they put pressure on both sides of the Legislature to do the right thing.”

A Waterville native and Wall Street investment banker who handled billions in pension assets for major companies, Poliquin says he understands how the pension system works and feels an obligation to raise the issue as often as he can. As treasurer, he has a seat on the board of the Maine Public Employees Retirement System, although when he addresses groups, he makes it clear he is not speaking on behalf of the retirement system.

Tarren Bragdon, executive director of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a conservative think tank, said while Poliquin is more visible than past treasurers, his interaction with the public is similar to that of another state constitutional officer, former Attorney General Steve Rowe.

“The public needs to know the facts about debt that ultimately has to be repaid by taxpayers,” he said.

In an interview, Poliquin said he would have gone further than LePage in suggesting pension reforms, indicating that he favored freezing the cost-of-living increases for retirees for a longer period. That would pay down the debt more quickly, but Poliquin said he understands the political difficulty of making those types of decisions.

LePage’s $6.1 billion, two-year budget proposes pension system changes that would free up money for other priorities in the state budget and address the long-term debt that must be repaid by 2028.

The pension reforms — which include a three-year cost-of-living freeze for retirees and increased contributions by current state workers — would save $390 million over the two-year period, and $2 billion by 2028, Poliquin said.

The transition to a state position is new to Poliquin, a Harvard graduate who once was a partner in an asset management firm that managed nearly $5 billion in worker pension funds for companies such as Bath Iron Works and International Paper.

“I have a newfound appreciation for working in the public sector,” he said. “You have to be here and experience it to have this appreciation, and I now have it. It tests one’s patience. You have to be very persistent. You have to listen very well and you have to then be very persuasive.”

As one of three constitutional officers in the state, Poliquin was chosen by majority Republicans in the Legislature to be the state’s 49th treasurer.

He and the state’s two other constitutional officers — the attorney general and secretary of state — serve two-year terms. They will be reconsidered for their positions after a new Legislature is elected in 2012. They can serve no more than eight years.

Poliquin is the first Republican state treasurer since Jerrold Speers of Winthrop served in 1980. Most former state treasurers are not familiar names, although at least two — Samuel Cony of Augusta and Edwin C. Burleigh of Bangor — became governor after serving as treasurer.

But that was in the mid-1800s.

For his part, Poliquin, who finished sixth in a seven-way Republican primary last June, said he may run for office again at some point.

“But I’m not thinking of it at all now,” he said.

MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at:

[email protected]