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Vermont Treasurer Mike Pieciak on how you can reclaim 'missing money' from the state

A man in a black jacket and blue shirt stands in front of a metal railing with a crashing waves of the a river, with an out-of-focus smokestack and green trees in the background
Pieciak campaign, courtesy
Mike Pieciak was elected as Vermont's new state treasurer in November 2022. This hour, he talks about the state's unclaimed property and his priorities for his first term in office.

Vermont's treasurer is holding some$119 million dollars in unclaimed property. This hour, we're speaking with Treasurer Mike Pieciak about how Vermonters can search for missing money. And we'll ask about his other priorities for his first term in office.

Our guest is:

  • Mike Pieciak, Vermont State Treasurer

Host Connor Cyrus spoke with Treasurer Pieciak, and their conversation is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Connor Cyrus: You've been in office for a little over a month, how are things going?

Mike Pieciak: Yeah, they're going great. You know, [former state treasure] Beth [Pearce] left a really good office behind. We had to certainly work on getting our team in place, and [I was] very fortunate to have a number of people that worked with me at [my former office at] the Department of Financial Regulation, that came over with me to the treasurer's office. And then, fortunate that we were able to meld those teams together with the team that was at the treasurer's office, who had experience with Beth and with the work of the treasurer's office. So, really feeling good about the team and the work that we're going to be able to do for Vermont.

You ran unopposed in the Democratic primary, and your opposition in the general election was a Republican who ran for multiple positions. You won your election with about 62% of the vote. All of this to say, you didn't have much of an opportunity to discuss your priorities and what you want to accomplish as state treasurer. So, will you give us the bullet points of what you hope to accomplish?

I'd be happy to. You know, one of the things that that campaign allowed me to do was go out and talk to Vermonters and hear about their priorities, and try to consolidate that down into sort of what were the top things that I was hearing. You know, we visited every single town in Vermont and had those conversations up and down our state. So, that was invaluable, in terms of taking office. And we tried to put what we heard into action, in terms of the priorities.

So, number one, we're focused on the "10% for Vermont" program. This is a program that allows Vermont to invest up to 10% of our cash on hand into the Vermont economy for economic development and job creation. Right now, Vermont holds a tremendous amount of cash on hand, because of all the federal money that has come to Vermont that has not yet been spent. We generally have around $2 billion cash on hand. Now, that won't last for forever, but we are doing pretty well from a cash standpoint and a financial standpoint.

So, that's ten and tens of millions of dollars that will be available for us to invest into the Vermont economy. And we want to make a priority of housing. Housing is the thing that we heard throughout the state, in terms of people's needs, and how it was holding back families, holding back businesses. So, getting "10% for Vermont" reestablished and energized, getting the money out, is priority number one.

Okay, well, while we're on priority number one, you're talking about this cash on hand. What does that mean?

It's pretty significant for Vermont. We've never been in a situation where we've had this much money sort of sitting in our bank account. It'd be the equivalent of the money that's sitting in your savings account. So, at the same time that we have a tremendous amount of cash on hand, we're also getting really significant interest rates that we haven't seen in decades. So, on average, recently, we've been earning about $7 million to $8 million a month, just from the cash that we have on hand. So, that's money that will go into programs, that won't have to come out of taxpayers pocket. So, it's pretty significant, in terms of the money that we're able to earn, and to put to work for Vermont.

Do you decide how that money is spent, or is that something the legislature does?

That's something the legislature will decide. That particular money will go into the general fund, but the legislature has given us authority to spend up to 10% of those "cash on hands" into the Vermont economy, and that is our decision, that part of it.

So that was number one. What are the rest of your priorities?

Another thing we heard and learned is, so many people in Vermont are feeling nervous about retirement. They don't have access to workplace retirement programs, they don't have a pension, they don't have a 401k. Estimates are that 45% of Vermont workers don't have access to those kinds of retirement accounts through their workplace. So, another priority of ours is to establish an "Auto IRA" program in Vermont.

An Auto IRA program would allow all workers to have access to an IRA. They would automatically be enrolled through their employer. They could opt out, if they'd like to, but it really sets them up to save for retirement. Even a few thousand dollars a year, even $1,000 a year, that can be significant over time.

There's also now a federal savers credit that's set to go online in 2027. That would be up to $2,000, to match directly into someone's qualified account. So, the federal government will have a program set up in a couple of years. Other states, about 12 of them, have gone forward with his Auto IRA concept. It's something that I think would be critical for Vermont, and Vermont workers.

That 45% of folks who don't have access, they're younger, they're BIPOC, they're less educated, they're lower-wage workers, they're the folks that we really want to target to try to help them help themselves. And the data will show that the more money you have in retirement, the more resources you have in retirement, the less need you have for state benefits. So, in the long run, it also benefits the state, in terms of the resources that the state has to support folks.

This Auto IRA, that's going to replace the effort to build out the Green Mountain Secure Retirement Plan?

Yeah, exactly, that's our goal. The Green Mountain Secure Retirement Plan was a voluntary program. We have looked at the other states that have implemented both types of programs [voluntary and automatic enrollment]. And the Auto IRA program was the one that has proven to be successful, in terms of getting the number of businesses to participate. It would be a requirement that the business participates. It's no cost to the business, and very limited administrative burden.

But that allows their employees, across the board, to participate. And the other states that have done it that way have gotten significant participation. And the few states that have gotten the voluntary route have just not gotten the kind of uptake that we would need to see in Vermont. So, we're very confident that the Auto IRA program would work. But the the Green Mountain Secure program certainly set up a strong base, both in terms of understanding about the issue, and working through these challenges as well.

Are there enough businesses in Vermont to make this a successful program?

On the mandatory [or] required side, we believe so, 100%. And the reason I say that is because, not only will we be able to get all of the businesses to participate, and their employees involved, but because there are 12 other states that have done it just like this, we will be able to partner with one of those states to bring our cost down, and to bring the administrative ease for businesses as well.

And there are states all across the country that are eager to partner. We just got back from a trip in DC, where we were able to have conversations with other treasures about this, and there's a few programs in particular that we feel very confident about, that fits well with Vermont. So, that's the reason that we have such a good likelihood of succeeding, both because we'll have a strong base in Vermont, but more importantly, there are other programs that are designed just like this one that we can partner with and get the benefit of that scale.

So we have top two, let's do one more priority.

Sure. Another thing that we've been hearing about, and we've seen momentum in the legislature, in the conversation continues, is this issue around school construction.

The state has had a moratorium on direct support for schools since 2007. Many other New England states, and states across the country, had a moratorium because of the Great Recession, the cost of supporting school construction, for a variety of reasons. But Vermont remains the last state to not have lifted the moratorium. The states of Massachusetts and Rhode Island have moved forward with programs that provide direct aid for school construction.

We have a lot of schools in Vermont that are in desperate need of being rehabbed for health and safety reasons, for programmatic reasons. In those other states, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, the state treasurer, along with the Secretary of Education, came together and formed a task force, brought all the appropriate stakeholders together, and then came up with ways to finance the aid and strategic incentives, to make sure that we're making good decisions at the local level, and then also a governance structure, in terms of who's making those decisions.

So, there's a bill in the legislature to create that taskforce [in Vermont] and establish both the treasurer's office and the Agency of Education as the chairs of that group. And I think that will be a very intense effort, but one that will be very important for the future. Verse two,

Your office announced that the state has about $119 million in unclaimed property. Sometimes it's called "missing money." What does that mean?

Connor, if you lived in an apartment previously, and you left and you forgot to get your security deposit, after a few years, generally two or three or four years, that landlord is required to turn that security deposit over to the treasurer's office, because it's not their money. They can't just keep it. It's your money. They don't have some obligation to try to return it to you. But then ultimately, when those fail, they send it to the treasurer's office to be the custodian of the money, and then work to reunite you with those funds.

So, it could be things like a utility deposit, it could be a bank account or stocks or other investments that you have. It could be that you're a beneficiary of somebody's life insurance policy, of someone's will or estate, so there's a whole variety of ways that unclaimed property comes to the treasurer's office. So again, our role is to make sure that we act as the custodian for the money, and then do everything that we can to make sure Vermonters know that they can search their name—it's relatively easy—and they can find the money.

The website includes not just the Vermont treasurer's office, but treasurers' offices from across the country. So, on that one website, you can search your name, find out if there are any unclaimed property claims out there, and then submit one and work with our office to get it back to you.

What does all this money mean? Let's just say that it doesn't get claimed, what does that mean for the state? And what does that do?

So you always have the right to claim the money. That never goes away. So, even if it's 50 years, you or your beneficiary have the right to claim the money.

Now, in reality, a lot of that money, it's really impossible to connect it to somebody. Some of the money gets turned over to us without a name, without an address. It's just turned over to us. So it's really challenging, and our department works really hard to find people and connect them.

But it's not just one that doesn't come back with a name, but sometimes, it comes back with a name like "John Smith." And that's sort of all the information [we have]. So, there's a lot of "John Smiths," and you want to make sure you're getting the right one. So, there is some money that, when you do the analysis, is unlikely to be returned.

So, some of that money does get used and sent over to the general fund, based on trends and the amount of money coming in, the amount of money going out, in a particular year.

For example, last year, we had over $7 million paid out to Vermonters over 15,000 claims. But we still had more money than that coming into unclaimed property. That was new money that we're trying to reunite Vermonters with. So, you know, we would like that number to be zero, but we're working hard for it to be zero. But in all likelihood, you know, it's always going to be a program that we're going to need to operate.

I'm curious if there are any fun anecdotes of somebody not knowing that they had, you know, an obscene amount of money waiting for them from this program?

Well, the anecdotes that I've heard, they mostly involved physical assets, because a security deposit box would also end up with our departments or family memorabilia, and people getting reunited with that. Obviously, that's priceless. Those kinds of stories are really great to hear.

We had a few stories from last year where people were just really thankful for our team and the work that they did to reunite them. There was a family with a number of siblings, they all shared in the unclaimed property. They, I believe, weren't aware of it until they heard one of our promotions. And then they were able to put all the money together give it to one of their brothers to help him with his fuel heating bill for the winter. So, the family felt really good about getting this money back. But then they were also able to help a family member of theirs. So, there are a lot of feel-good stories in unclaimed property.

I want to switch gears. According to VT Digger, you promised to protect Vermont's pension system, but unlike your predecessor, they report you appear to be open to the idea of fossil fuel divestment, which would divest the state's public pension investments away from fossil fuels. For a layperson, can you explain where the state is, and where you would like to see the state go?

The way I look at this issue is through a risk mitigation lens. I think by looking at the risks of fossil fuels, and the transition to a lower-carbon economy presents, to protect the pensions, you need to be thinking about that risk and mitigating it over time. Now, we're not going to switch to a low-carbon or no- carbon economy overnight. It's going to be years and years, if not a decade or more.

So, Vermont has done a really good job in the past. Beth Pearce has been a champion of looking at ESG criteria—environmental, social, governance—looking at things beyond just the bottom line. Looking at lower-carbon companies, as well, and transitioning the [pension] portfolio. The portfolio used to have a significantly higher percentage of fossil fuel investments, and that's gone down to the low single-digits, now, as a percent of the overall fund.

So, they've done a lot of good work. Now it's just making sure that we continue that good work, and not run the risk of having what's called stranded assets: investments that are in the fossil fuel industry, but the fossil fuel industry is not competitive anymore because of consumer behavior changes, government requirements and things of that nature. So, it's really about risk mitigation, from my perspective.

And speaking of risk mitigation, I also just want to get a sense, and give our listeners an idea of where Vermont, is in terms of our credit rating.

We have the highest credit rating in New England. And what that means is, we can go out and borrow money, and we can do it at a lower interest rate. So it's less expensive for us as a state, it's less expensive for taxpayers. So, it's really important to have that strong credit rating. When the rating agencies look at Vermont, they point out two things in the negative column: they say unfunded pension liability, and we started to address that last year. It was recognized—S&P moved our outlook from "negative" to "stable" and a recent Fitch report acknowledged that we had made good progress on the pension as well.

And then they usually point to our demographics and say, your state workforce is getting smaller, you're getting older, you're not getting the population growth you'd like to see. Now, that dynamic has changed after COVID, and there is acknowledgment of that. We want to continue to see that kind of demographic and workforce growth. But it's got to start with housing. We need more housing in Vermont

Has Vermont regained its AAA status?

Not yet. Not yet, but we're working on it.

The last time I saw it, we were at AA+?

Yeah, we're basically the second-highest category of all the rating agencies. So we're not AAA, but we're the second highest, and we'd like to get back to that AAA status.

Broadcast live on Friday, Feb. 17, 2023, at noon.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet us @vermontedition.

Connor Cyrus was co-host and senior producer of Vermont Edition from 2021-2023.
Matt Smith worked for Vermont Public from 2017 to 2023 as managing editor and senior producer of Vermont Edition.