Pensions and abortion become campaign issues in Ohio treasurer race
Early voting is underway, and along with many other races, all five of Ohio’s statewide executive offices are on the ballot. The five Republican incumbents for governor, attorney general, auditor, secretary of state and treasurer are seeking re-election against Democratic challengers.
The first of series previewing the 2022 election from the Statehouse News Bureau begins with a profile of the race for treasurer which features Republican incumbent Robert Sprague against Democrat Scott Schertzer.
The treasurer’s office collects and holds taxes and fees and manages state investments.
Incumbent Republican treasurer Robert Sprague is a former state representative who was auditor and treasurer in Findlay.
He talks up his office’s work on the AG-LINK program, in which the state partners with local banks to lower interest rates for farmers, and Ohiocheckbook.com, which hopes to show how state and local governments spend tax dollars.
But one thing he’s not continuing, taking cryptocurrency for state business taxes. Sprague ended that program 10 months after his predecessor Josh Mandel started it.
“I wanted to only accept for the settlements of the state's debts U.S. dollars, hard currency because I knew that I could count on those. And also, I didn't want anybody I never wanted a taxpayer to be shortchanged. There was always a chance that if bad things happened and the vendor imploded, that they would lose their money and they'd have to pay again,” Sprague said.
Democrat Scott Schertzer is the mayor of Marion. He said one of his priorities would be to look at the treasurer's designated appointments to the state’s five pension boards, especially the State Teachers Retirement System. The STRS board voted on a one-time 3% cost of living adjustment this year, the first since 2017.
“When you take a look at the most recent issue with the state teachers losing $3 billion and then the board gives out nearly $10 million in bonuses, I'm not opposed to bonuses, but I am opposed to giving out bonuses when you are losing billions of dollars.”
Sprague said he’s confident in his appointees and adds that state law doesn’t allow the treasurer to make investment decisions for any of the pension systems. However he said for the decisions he can make, he won’t make them based on environmental, social or governance factors – known as ESG-focused strategies, and opposes boycott, divestment and sanctions or BDS against Israel because of its actions against Palestinians. He said those choices are not an ideological stance.
“Not at all. I mean, what we're saying is that we have a fiduciary responsibility in the treasurer's office to make sure that the return of the capital is there for the people of the state of Ohio and that they get the highest return out there that's available. It is not my job to take the state's $28 billion portfolio and enact my political priorities for political gain,” Sprague said.
One of the top issues in this election year is abortion, which might not seem to have a place in a race like that for treasurer. But it’s coming up in campaigns around the country for down-ballot offices. Schertzer said he’s asked about it everywhere he goes.
“I will cast my vote for pro-choice candidates in the state of Ohio, because that's what Ohioans want. And it's also not good for economic development, the state. We need to be able to attract women to the state of Ohio. If there is a labor shortage in the state and there are so many jobs to fill, why would you do something like the governor and the Republicans have that's going to shun women away from the state of Ohio?”
Sprague, who’s endorsed by anti-abortion groups, said he wants to change the conversation about abortion. He talks about a man who approached him about adoption and state and federal tax credits.
“That might come through in two years. So we created a new program that if you get a loan to adopt a child in the state of Ohio, we're going to help lower the interest rate to get you through to that state and federal tax credit.”
Schertzer said he’s running for treasurer because he’s concerned about scandals related to one-party rule, such as the corruption case surrounding the House Bill 6 nuclear power plant bailout.
He knows he’ll need Republican votes to win in a state that’s been red in midterm years since 2010 – so he says he wants voters to know that he’s a Democrat and a fiscal conservative.
“If you don't have the money, you shouldn't do it. And if you want to do it, you better find the money. So I will be that fiscal conservative because I think it's what the voters want. I think that's how we all operate in our own personal home finances,” Schertzer said.
Some former treasurers have launched from that office into other campaigns.
Past treasurers have included Republicans Josh Mandel, who’s run twice for U.S. Senate and lost, and Joe Deters, currently the Hamilton County Prosecutor, as well as Democrats Mary Ellen Withrow, who became U.S. Treasurer under President Bill Clinton and Richard Cordray, who went on to become Ohio attorney general and then the head of the first federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and lost the race for governor in 2018.