LEWISTON — Newly minted Maine State Treasurer Neria Douglass said she aims to reverse the doom-and-gloom outlook that’s marked the past two years of the state’s public finances.
While she does plan to pinch every penny that comes from the state treasury, the former state auditor told the Sun Journal on Tuesday she’s decidedly not pound foolish.
“I have no problem with pinching pennies,” she said. “What I find troublesome is the perspective that everything’s going to seed. That we’re going downhill. That we can’t emerge from this difficult economy without slash and burn.”
Douglass, who also served three terms in the Maine Senate, said her attention as auditor has focused on the state’s past ledgers. In her new role, she’ll be looking forward — with optimism — to a more prosperous state economy.
“We’ve made it through the hard years,” she said. “Things are going to get better and better. There’s no doubt in my mind.”
She added, “In contrast, I think the last two years have been dominated by a negative atmosphere that wasn’t helpful to improving our situation.”
If the state fails to maintain its infrastructure, it won’t be able to revive quickly as the economy continues to improve, she said. Businesses rely on dependable roads to get their workers to the job, as well as fiber optics to move information quickly through the Internet throughout the state.
“We need to remember that government provides some fundamental building blocks for private business, as well as other services to the public,” she said.
For those reasons, Douglass, a Democrat, is urging Republican Gov. Paul LePage to issue the $64 million in general obligation bonds Maine voters passed in November.
Maine’s general obligation debt stands at $472 million, its percentage per capita less than the average in other states.
Douglass said she views that debt level as acceptable, but she hopes LePage will issue the voter-approved bonds that, she believes, will create jobs and improve the state’s infrastructure.
“You need to invest to have a future,” she said, offering the analogy of someone who needs a reliable vehicle to get to work. It’s an investment that will make it possible to earn more money than that vehicle cost.
“If you haven’t made that investment, then you’re not creating a future for yourself, you’re simply closing shop,” she said. “We should not be closing shop.”
The first couple of years she served as auditor, the state floated tax-anticipation notes to cover some expenses, but that hasn’t occurred for the past seven years, she said.
“We’re very thrifty and very economical through our use of our cash to pay our current obligations,” she said. “We use our cash wisely and look ahead to where the big expenditures are going to be made. In these difficult economic times, that is still a big plus.”
That helps keep Maine’s bond rating high. But it could go even higher, she said.
“I hope we will be improving that,” she said of the state’s current bond rating of Aa2, as judged by Moody’s and Standard and Poor. Her second day on the job, Douglass had already spoken briefly with representatives from those two rating agencies.
She said she looks forward to presenting to them the “fiscally prudent” steps the Legislature is taking to improve the economy in Maine.
Douglass plans to work with other agencies whenever possible to improve state government efficiencies, something she learned during stints on the School Committee and City Council in Auburn. Those boards found savings through joint purchasing with the sister city of Lewiston.
“That’s my goal,” Douglass said, “to provide as much value to the people of Maine, given the current resources we have, and they will be shrinking by whatever measure they need to so that we can continue providing good service.”