SEMO News Service
A Republican auditor gave his office an "excellent" rating -- the only state office to receive that rating. More than $1 billion has been loaned to small businesses and farms, unclaimed property returns have reached an all-time high, more residents are signed up to save for college through plans managed by the treasurer's office and Missouri's AAA credit rating has been retained.
But Zweifel's Republican opponent in this year's election for the treasurer's office, state Rep. Cole McNary, is asking questions of that success. McNary, a two-term legislator from Chesterfield, said if elected, he can bring the people of Missouri "the real fiscal truth."
Basic duties of Missouri's treasurer are to invest, deposit and keep custody of state funds. The treasurer also represents taxpayers by serving on boards and commissions including the Missouri Housing Development Commission, the Missouri State Employees' Retirement System, the Board of Fund Commissioners and the Missouri Higher Education Savings Program Board.
Elected in 2008, Zweifel, 38 of Florissant, said much of his work while in office has focused on providing strong fiscal leadership for the state and delivering results on tangible things during an economic crisis. He said he also has made many efforts to provide a transparent operation; for example, he announced to the public within one day of discovering when he first took office that the state had previously made an indirect investment with Bernie Madoff. Pensions of elected officials and judges were also published online for the first time under Zweifel. He retooled a small business loan program and farm program to make it more usable, created an atmosphere where Missouri could get a market rate of return on its investments with bipartisan support from the legislature and has reduced costs of the state's college savings plan by 54 percent since he took office. More people than ever, the treasurer said, are now using that program.
College savings plan
McNary's first point of contention, and his argument for why he should be elected, lies with the treasurer's analysis of the college savings plan.
"We should not judge the program on how many people signed up," he said. "We should judge the program on how well it does what it is intended to do, even if just a few people sign up."
McNary alleges Zweifel has only been advertising the success of one part of the college savings program, even though more investors use the lower-ranking plan.
"His facts change every time he makes accusations," Zweifel said. "Here's the reality. More people than ever are saving. More of their money is going into these investments, and less is going to Wall Street."
McNary also finds issue with Zweifel's outlook on the state's employee retirement pension system, MOSERS. First, he questions whether the state treasurer should even serve on the MOSERS board.
"I think there is a conflict there," McNary said. "On the pension board, your job is to represent the people getting the benefits. On the other hand, you job is to be responsible to the taxpayers. So you have to wear two hats. I think it puts the treasurer in a difficult position."
Second, he believes more attention needs to be paid to the amounts state pensions are projected to be underfunded, in light of pension systems in states like Illinois being severely underfunded and causing a budget crises.
"My argument is that there are people who are saying there is a potential for real crisis on the horizon," he said. "What we've been told is that our pensions have a range of amounts that are unfunded. I think its very serious. I don't know how you could be treasurer of a state and not have oversight on the state's pensions."
McNary said he would do a review of the pension system within his first six months in office to determine if changes are needed. Zweifel said MOSERS already undergoes an actuarial review annually, and as treasurer he has already advocated for an earlier review and assumed a lower rate of return.
"My opponent has spent a lot of time, by the way, citing other countries, other continents and other states' fiscal problems, but hasn't really been talking about Missouri, specifically," Zweifel said. "When we look at Missouri's position, we have made promises that we can keep in this state. I think it's really important to remember that when you make promises you can keep, that's how you end up with a AAA credit rating."
In campaign stops around the state, McNary has talked of his work in the state legislature putting together a committee that eliminated duplicate and out-of-date statutes, unfunded programs and combined boards and commissions. He said he wants to take the philosophies of that committee into the treasurer's office, if elected, to "reduce discriminatory spending and adopt more fiscally prudent policy practices."
"All organizations need to restructure from time to time, but government is not very good at that," he said.
Zweifel's focus would be on expanding a project that would help small businesses that aren't currently considered "bankable," or do not yet have credit lines, by encouraging community banks to purchase loans made to those businesses from larger lenders. The project would help establish relationships between community banks and small businesses, he said, and open up credit lines for the larger lenders so that loans would be more accessible to others.
Quarterly finance reports released Oct. 15 by the Missouri Ethics Commission showed McNary catching up to Zweifel recently, but Zweifel still had a large cash-on-hand advantage, with $1.3 million to McNary's $161,00.