While many may think of the position as mysterious and opaque, to Henry Beck, the post of Maine treasurer provides the critical opportunity to safeguard the financial well-being of the state while also returning money to Mainers and implementing initiatives that ensure public funds are managed wisely and in a socially responsible manner.
Those are just some of the reasons why Beck, who has held the position of state treasurer since 2018, is seeking reelection for another two-year term. Unlike many states, Maine’s constitutional officers — the state treasurer, secretary of state, and attorney general — are not popularly elected but instead selected by lawmakers at the beginning of the first session of each legislature. The 131st Legislature will kick off December 7, and with Democrats holding the majorities in both chambers, Beck — a former Democratic state representative — is likely to be selected again.
“Our office safeguards the financial wellbeing of Maine, but also so many Maine people. This responsibility is an honor,” Beck said of why he wants to continue in the position.
The last couple years haven’t been easy for anyone who works in state finances, with Beck highlighting the financial fallout from the pandemic as a significant challenge. However, he said he is proud of the way Maine weathered that crisis — the state ended up with a surplus going into negotiations on the supplemental budget in the last legislative session, its strong credit rating was affirmed earlier this year and another projected surplus was announced this week. Along with that, Beck said progress has been made on several significant initiatives spearheaded or supported by the treasurer’s office.
One such program is the state’s ABLE ME initiative, which Beck said helps Mainers with disabilities save money without having to use their benefits as long as those saved funds are used for expenses such as education, adaptive equipment, groceries, energy costs and other necessities. That program, which was launched in the fall of 2021, took a long time to set up but will have a meaningful impact for many around the state, Beck said.
“It’s a way to prevent disabled people from being penalized for saving money or receiving small gifts from family members,” he said.
Social justice and public funds
Under his tenure, Beck said the state treasurer’s office has also been part of discussions around the emerging movement toward socially responsible investing, which takes environmental and justice issues into consideration when possible.
One example is a bill passed by the legislature and signed by Gov. Janet Mills in 2021 that made Maine the first state to commit through legislation to divest from fossil fuel companies. That measure required the “$17 billion Maine Public Employee Retirement System to divest $1.3 billion from fossil fuels within five years” and directed the state treasurer to “do the same with other state funds,” according to a news release by 350 Maine after the bill was passed.
Beck backed that bill when it was before the legislature.
“Maine is particularly vulnerable to climate change and I do think it’s appropriate if we do so reasonably within fiduciary duty to consider that when we make the investment decisions for state cash,” he said, referring to the duty of the treasurer’s office to work in the best financial interests of the state.
From the state treasurer’s side of things, Beck said that divestment law has been fully implemented, although he noted that the pension system is not controlled by the treasurer’s office.
Moving forward, Beck said he wants to continue to have a larger conversation about how to make sure public funds “get returns for their purpose while also keeping in mind social and policy goals that are important to our constituents.”
However, he added that he’d like to see more guidance from the federal regulators on what is appropriate for states to consider when it comes to public funds. Beck also said that Maine has accomplished a great deal in implementing environment, social and governance investing (ESG) and argued that the state should “proceed cautiously with any further changes.”
Beck looking to focus on retirement programs, advising lawmakers in next term
If reelected, Beck said he will focus his next term on strengthening the state’s retirement savings program to help low- and middle-income Mainers save for life after work. He added that he wants to continue implementing a bill originally passed in 2011 designed to protect funds for retired teachers’ health insurance.
Beck also said he’ll look to keep up the progress his office has made in returning unclaimed property to Mainers. There is about $300 million in unclaimed funds available in Maine due to uncashed checks, inheritances, insurance payments and more, Beck said. He said the treasurer’s office works hard to give that money back to the people it belongs to and ranks among the states with the highest return rate. One initiative that has helped return more unclaimed property is using pre-existing databases to help verify people’s information, Beck said.
As he heads into the legislative selection process, Beck said he will reach out to every lawmaker to provide them with a one-pager of sorts on his record in office. Beck called the state treasurer’s post the greatest job he’s ever had and said, if reelected, he looks forward to continuing to provide advice on state finances to policymakers.
“I don’t have to be on the front page of the paper,” he said. “I really enjoy that advisory role and being active, expert, and helpful.”