Clarke and McRae both tout experience in treasurer race

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Eugene "Buck" Clarke and David McRae say they want to be Mississippi's treasurer, even though the next person in that office will inherit a little-discussed mess — a college savings plan that could run out of money in a few years.

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Clarke and McRae are competing in the Aug. 6 Republican primary. The winner will face Democrat Addie Lee Green in the Nov. 5 general election.

McRae is making his second run at the office, after failing to defeat incumbent Lynn Fitch in the 2015 GOP primary. Clarke is a familiar face too, having served four terms in the state Senate, including eight years chairing the Senate's budget writing committee.

Green is a former Bolton alderwoman and has unsuccessfully run twice for public service commissioner and once for agriculture commissioner. She spent less than $1,000 on her campaign for treasurer the first six months of this year.

Fitch has served two terms as treasurer and is now seeking the Republican nomination for attorney general.

In the Republican primary, Clarke touts his background as a certified public accountant and McRae his management of his family investments.

"I figured I would be the right fit with my CPA background and knowledge of the budget," said Clarke, who has represented parts of Bolivar, Humphreys, Madison, Sharkey, Washington and Yazoo counties in the Senate. As an accountant, Clark said he has experience with trust funds and retirement funds.

McRae, descended from a family that owned department stores, said he wants to maximize returns on the state's money.

"The treasurer's office is primarily an investment office, and that's where I believe my talents are best suited," McRae said. "I want to make sure our investments are getting a great rate of return."

McRae said he's been successful as an investor, but declined to release specific figures without family permission.

McRae is spending heavily for a down-ballot office. Through June 30, he had loaned himself $1 million and raised about $148,000 from others. He has spent $872,000, leaving him $275,000 on hand.

Clarke has raised $170,000 this year and spent $102,000. He had nearly $227,000 in cash on hand, thanks to money he raised previously.

The treasurer — who is paid $90,000 a year — manages the state's cash, has a seat on the board of the Public Employees Retirement System and tries to return unclaimed property.

The treasurer also oversees the state's college savings plans. Fitch several years ago initiated an overhaul of Mississippi's Prepaid Affordable College Tuition plan, saying it was underfunded. Under her leadership, the college savings board started a new plan and cut off contributions to an older fund.

The new plan had $54 million in assets as of June 30, 2018, and more than enough money to pay its $46 million in future projected obligations. But the old plan was $127 million short — about 70% — of the projected amount needed to pay tuition in the future. Last year's projections show the fund running out of money in mid-2027, which could be at the end of the second term of someone elected treasurer this fall. Several thousand students would still be owed money and would have to be paid somehow, because the plan is backed by the full faith and credit of the state of Mississippi. Ignoring or cutting payments would be equivalent to defaulting on the state's bonds.

McRae at first said he would examine whether more successful investments could drag the fund out of its hole, but later acknowledged that the fund's position was poor enough to make that unlikely. Clarke said now might be a good time to ask lawmakers to start making up the deficit, after the state finished the budget year ended June 30 with something like a $300 million surplus.

"We're pretty flush right now," Clarke said.

Lawmakers, including Clarke, have so far refused pleas for more money.

McRae also said he wants to do more to provide detailed information about the office to the general public, and would emphasize customer service.

Outgoing Republican Gov. Phil Bryant has endorsed McRae, though Clarke served in the Senate when Bryant was lieutenant governor. Clarke hopes his state government and career ties outweigh McRae's aggressive campaign.

"That's what I'm asking the voters to look at, is to compare my experience to my opponent's," Clarke said.

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