There is no incumbent and a competitive field of five candidates seeking the office of state treasurer, which has been held by Democrats since 1956.
Washington Treasurer James McIntire won’t stand for re-election this fall after two terms in Olympia, sparking what could be a competitive race for the financial office won by Democrats in every election after 1952.
Five candidates are running to be treasurer, including Republican banker Michael Waite, Democratic state Sen. Marko Liias and former Port of Seattle Commissioner Alec Fisken, a Democrat. Two other candidates Democrat John Paul Comerford and Benton County Treasurer Duane Davidson, a Republican, are running as well.
An Aug. 2 primary will determine the two candidates who move on to the general election Nov. 8.
The state treasurer keeps watch over state money as it moves in and out of accounts, along with a number of other complex duties as Washington’s chief financial officer.
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The office also oversees bond sales for financing public projects like last year’s $16.1 billion transportation package. It plays a key role on the State Investment Board that invests and manages the retirement money of public employees such as teachers and police officers. The treasurer also sits on the board of Washington’s Guaranteed Education Tuition prepaid-tuition program.
Liias has been in the Legislature since he was appointed to the House in 2008. He joined the Senate in 2014. As a Democratic leader on transportation budgets, he has worked with the treasurer’s office on financing for transportation projects.
Liias said he has the strongest relationships in the Legislature, many lawmaker endorsements and the most experience working on complex state finances compared with other candidates.
He has a history of attempting to reform various loan programs.In 2015, he led an effort backed by Seattle-based Moneytree to change the state’s payday-lending laws to favor longer-term high-interest loans in an effort to let borrowers have more time to repay loans.
The measure was met with resistance by many Democrats including Gov. Jay Inslee, who said it would raise costs for average consumers. It eventually died in the Democrat-led House. Liias no longer supports that particular proposal.
He also pushed several pieces of legislation in the 2016 session seeking to reduce student-loan debt that stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate.
As treasurer, he said he would aim to ease the burden of college debt for students and graduates and hopes to safeguard pension plans instead of solely being the state’s financial manager.
Fisken served as a Port commissioner from 2004 to 2008 before losing a close race to Republican Bill Bryant, who is running for governor this year. He focused on the terminal’s finances while at the Port, and fiercely advocated for fiscal transparency, he said.
Fisken has also worked for several private companies in financial roles and spent time as a financial adviser for Seattle. His decades of experience in private and public finances give him the most relevant expertise of any candidate, Fisken said.
Fisken said that as treasurer, he would aim to heavily scrutinize how much the state pays its financial advisers to make sure they’re not being overpaid.
He said he would also focus on drawing up progressive tax structures and advising the Legislature on why they are the best route if lawmakers choose to raise money to fix how the state pays for education as required by the state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision.
Many lawmakers estimate meeting the ruling will cost the state as much as $3.5 billion every two years.
The state is likely to look for different tax structures to “get rid of this sort of antiquated, very bizarre and painfully regressive tax system that we have,” Fisken said. Much of Washington’s money comes from a sales tax.
McIntire, a Democrat, has endorsed Fisken, along with the state employees union.
Waite has never been in public office, but he said he manages more than $11.1 billion in assets as vice president of investment company Bentall Kennedy. Before that, he spent time at Bill Gates’ private investment firm Cascade Investment, where he managed more than $70 billion.
He said he knows best how to manage state debt and will push the Legislature to “live within their means” and practice better fiscal responsibility. Waite said being treasurer is a technical position, which requires a financial professional like himself instead of a bureaucrat or politician.
Waite, who lives in Seattle, has the backing of many prominent Republicans in Washington including endorsements from former state Attorney General Rob McKenna, and the state Senate’s lead budget writer Andy Hill. So far he’s also raised the most money in the race.