Most Idahoans don’t think about the office of Idaho’s state treasurer often — unless controversy arises around management of funds.
The treasurer is responsible for receiving, holding and investing billions of dollars of state money and keeping records of those transactions. The treasurer also is responsible for overseeing the state’s credit rating, which helps to determine how much Idaho taxpayers will end up paying when the state issues bonds. The treasurer works closely with the state controller, which disburses the money to various state agencies as needed.
Idaho voters will go to the polls on Nov. 8, and the Idaho Capital Sun spoke with Republican incumbent Treasurer Julie Ellsworth and Democratic challenger Deborah Silver about their backgrounds and priorities for the office if elected.
Idaho Treasurer Julie Ellsworth spent many years in Idaho politics before she was elected to the treasurer’s office in 2018. She was a legislator in the Idaho House of Representatives for a combined 12 years between 1996 and 2012, where she also held leadership positions such as majority caucus chairwoman. Before that, she used her bachelor’s degree in education to teach elementary school in Boise and earned a certification as a conflict resolution mediator through the University of Idaho.
It was during her time at the Legislature that Ellsworth developed an interest in the treasurer’s office, which she describes as the state’s “Accounts Receivable” division, while the controller’s office is “Accounts Payable.”
“The entity that takes in the money should never be the one that’s also spending it,” Ellsworth explains.
Her office manages about $12 billion per year for the state, including about $10 million per day flowing between the treasurer’s office and Controller Brandon Woolf’s office.
“It’s a very quiet office where we want to maintain trust with the public,” Ellsworth said. “I essentially have a quiet partnership with everything in state government.”
To Ellsworth, one of the key aspects of her job is getting the best rate of return on the state’s investments.
Ellsworth says she will ‘keep pushing back’ on ESG rating efforts
Her role as a steward of the state’s money is one she takes seriously, she said, which is why she is outspoken about environmental, social and governance standards — better known as ESG — in the credit rating and investment world. She is concerned that, if credit rating agencies assign negative ESG scores to states, that could affect Idaho’s ability to secure low-interest bonds.
Ellsworth held a roundtable discussion at the Idaho Capitol in June with U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and two Idaho legislators. Utah State Treasurer Marlo Oaks also joined the discussion and talked about Utah’s objection to Standard & Poor’s, a global credit rating agency, assigning ESG scores to states. It assigned a “moderately negative” rating to Utah because of concerns over long-term water supply, but gave Idaho a “neutral” rating.
ESG as a business concept isn’t new and has been around for more than a decade, but federal agencies, including the Securities and Exchange Commission, have announced efforts to update and clarify ESG standards over the past year, which has garnered criticism that the standards are focused on “woke” politics.
The environmental factors for ESG scores include considerations such as carbon emissions and air and water pollution. The social components include commitment to diversity and customer satisfaction, and governance includes factors such as diversity of board members, executive pay and lobbying activities.
“Pretend the investment manager is your left hand, and your right hand is your shareholder. ESG takes this little extra hand and puts it right in the middle, like a pen, parked in between those two entities and saying, ‘Wait, you have to look at this first,’” Ellsworth said. “That is wrong, it’s fundamentally wrong. I believe it’s actually counter to our prudent investor (rule).”
Ellsworth said she plans to work with legislators on ESG-related bills in the upcoming legislative session, and she will keep pushing back.
Other than ESG, Ellsworth also plans to continue her role as chairwoman of the Idaho Bond Bank Authority, which helps develop, implement and approve the issuance of low-cost financing options to local municipalities across Idaho. She’s also focused on maintaining Idaho’s AAA credit rating, the highest possible rating, which the state achieved in February.
“I love my job, and I love the professionalism of the people that work in the office with me,” Ellsworth said.
Deborah Silver first ran to be Idaho’s state treasurer in 2014 amid controversy over the actions of then-Treasurer Ron Crane, after a legislative audit claimed he made a fund transfer that cost Idaho taxpayers as much as $10 million.
Crane won that election handily despite the controversy, and Silver hadn’t planned on running for the office again.
But when the candidate who won the Democratic primary, Jill Ellsworth (no relation to Julie Ellsworth), dropped out of the race, the Idaho Democratic Party asked Silver to step in less than three months before the election. Although she hadn’t had time to put together a real campaign, Silver agreed to run because she wanted voters to have a choice on the ballot.
“The most important thing was that Democrats saw a capable candidate running,” Silver said.
Silver is a certified public accountant who was born in Jerome and lived, worked and raised a family in Twin Falls for more than four decades before moving to a condo in Sun Valley. Silver taught accounting at the College of Southern Idaho for five years and co-owned an accounting practice in Twin Falls with her husband for 30 years.
She also serves as the treasurer for Reclaim Idaho, the nonprofit organization that gathered enough signatures for a ballot initiative that expanded Medicaid in Idaho. She has served as a county party chair and ran unsuccessfully for the Legislature in 2016 and 2018.
Silver said her interest in politics began after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and her brother was sent to Afghanistan. But she sees the job of treasurer as one that is not and should not be political.
“The treasurer position is actually a job. It really amounts to making sure that what the books say, what the controller says, is in the accounts is what’s really, physically, in the accounts, and then doing the cash management to make sure the cash is available when the state needs it,” Silver said.
She hasn’t been following ESG debates closely, she said. She doesn’t think it’s something that needs the attention of the treasurer or other politicians, she said.
“This is a business, this job is a business, and it’s being safe with the state’s money. To throw these kinds of political things into it, it’s not being responsible to all the citizens of Idaho,” Silver said.
While she doesn’t think the controversies of 2014 still exist for the treasurer’s office today, she believes the role is still a critical one and requires the competency of an accountant to be able to effectively manage funds and keep accurate records.
“It seems boring, but it’s really important for the state and it’s really important that what we say is in the bank is really what the accounts say,” Silver said.
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