HARRISBURG, Pa. — Pennsylvania voters will pick the next state treasurer to oversee an agency that is playing a bigger role in the state government’s finances because of persistent deficits. The Nov. 8 election also approaches as two of the office’s three most recent elected holders have been hit with federal charges.
Democrat Joe Torsella, 52, was a deputy mayor in Philadelphia under then-Mayor Ed Rendell and went on to be Rendell’s appointee to chair the State Board of Education. After that, Torsella was CEO of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia and a presidential appointee to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations. He lives in Montgomery County.
Republican Otto Voit, 58, served with the Army in Desert Storm and worked as an executive with Keystone Industries, Education and Fun and Soft Systems Engineering, which he helped start. He ran unsuccessfully for Berks County treasurer before he ran successfully for the Muhlenberg School District board. He lives in Berks County.
Also on the ballot are the Green Party’s Kristin Combs and the Libertarian Party’s James Babb.
THE TREASURER’S JOB
The treasurer oversees the Department of the Treasury, a 360-employee agency that processes $90 billion in payments every year to state employees, pensioners, schools, hospitals, contractors and more, and is the custodian of over $100 billion of public money, including pension funds. The treasurer also sits on the boards of Pennsylvania’s two large public employee pension agencies and has a say in bonds issued by the governor’s administration.
The post is not necessarily a place for a financial professional, and it can be a springboard to higher office. The last three elected treasurers — Barbara Hafer, Bob Casey and Rob McCord — each won a second term and each later ran for higher office.
Treasurers can carve out their own niche in the policy and programs of the office, such as the popular 529 college savings plans that the agency started and manages.
In the years after the recession, the treasurer’s office has played a more prominent role in the state government’s day-to-day finances, loaning money in seven different agreements to keep the state’s deficit-ridden main bank account from hitting $0 during sluggish tax collection periods.
In March, the treasurer set precedent by allowing payments for prison costs amid a budget stalemate between Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and lawmakers that exceeded the limit set by Wolf in an earlier spending bill.
TURBULENCE AT TREASURY
Hafer is facing federal charges in a case that revolves around the lucrative contracts that the treasurer awards to invest billions of taxpayer dollars.
McCord stepped down in 2015 before pleading guilty to federal attempted extortion charges. He admitted that he tried to use his position as treasurer to strong-arm state contractors into donating money to his failed gubernatorial campaign in 2014. A Wolf appointee, Timothy Reese, is serving the rest of McCord’s term.
Both candidates are pledging to advance various transparency measures.
For instance, Torsella says he would make it easier to see the political contributions of state contractors and push to ban state business with third-party marketers. Voit wants to create a website that would make it easy for the public to sort through the state’s finances, revenues, spending and contracts.
A top priority of Torsella is to help create and manage low-fee individual retirement accounts with automatic paycheck deductions for private sector workers in Pennsylvania who have no workplace retirement plan. Torsella notes that such programs exist in other states.
Voit is pledging to save taxpayers $1 billion in his first term and will not run for a second term if he does not.