BOSTON — Shortly after voters elected him treasurer in 2010, Steve Grossman set out to make Massachusetts a leader in enhanced disclosure and innovation.
It started with building relationships in state government, not easy to do on Beacon Hill.
"If we were going to accomplish something significant, if we were to do the people's business in an effective way, we had to build strong alliances, including the Department of Administration and Finance, and the legislature," Grossman, a Democratic candidate in an open-seat race for governor, said in a lengthy interview at downtown Boston's iconic Parker House hotel.
Grossman, his term winding down, cited disclosure initiatives such as an online checkbook; a rolling general obligation bond offering for smaller, retail investors; a replenished rainy-day fund that ranks high nationally; the addition of environmental "green bonds" and most recently, an asset-liability initiative designed to minimize interest-rate exposure.
In addition, the $58 billion Pension Reserves Management Board, which manages state and teacher retirement systems and several municipal plans and which Grossman chairs, generated a 15.2% return in 2013 an investment gain. Grossman called PRIM "a model for others to emulate."
Standard & Poor's in September 2011 raised the commonwealth's GO rating to AA-plus from AA. Fitch Rating also has an AA-plus rating while Moody's Investors Service assigns an Aa1. S&P's move came nine days after Grossman, Gov. Deval Patrick and other state leaders pitched the three bond agencies in lengthy meetings at the office of Senate President Therese Murray, D-Plymouth.
"Since he took office, Steve set two major priorities for the borrowing program: to improve the state's credit and to enhance our disclosure to investors," said Colin MacNaught, Grossman's deputy treasurer for debt management. "Both have been accomplished. And both will provide major benefits to the state and its investors over the long-term."
Grossman called the effort collaborative.
"When we brought the rating agencies in here, everyone was fully engaged - the governor, Colin and his team, the leadership of the House and Senate, Therese Murray and others," said Grossman.
Before taking office, Grossman huddled with MacNaught. "Colin, typically for him, laid out a solid strategy for improving our disclosure. He said other states have gotten into trouble over poor disclosure and he wanted Massachusetts to be a leader."
Grossman also praised first deputy treasurer James MacDonald. "He's seen it all and done it all." MacDonald succeeded Katherine Craven late in 2011 when Craven became executive director of the University of Massachusetts Building Authority. She is now the chief administrative officer at Babson College.
The rolling GO offering — Massachusetts has sold roughly $250 million of such bonds since mid-March — widen the commonwealth's investor base and make them available to the smaller investor, said Grossman.
"We have to provide smaller investors with easily accessible data about what's happening in the commonwealth. It's something we believe in across the board.
"Will the woman sitting over at that table that spends $100,000 on Massachusetts bonds go through all the documents at the same level as Fidelity will? Probably not, but she ought to have the same access. Investors have a right to access 365 days a year. It's about being responsible to taxpayers."
In June, Massachusetts kicked off its five-year asset-liability management program with its $500 million sale of new-money, tax-exempt SIFMA index bonds. The program is a risk-reduction move to enable officials to base structuring decisions on a holistic view of interest-rate risk by selling more variable-rate bonds. SIFMA index bonds are variable-rate instruments tied to the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association municipal swap index.
"It's complicated and doesn't lend itself to easy understanding by investors and the rating agencies, but it's the common sense thing to do," said Grossman. "I don't know anybody who has not bought into it."
Next month, Massachusetts expects to sell $250 million of green bonds through negotiation on Sept. 17 and 18 and some GO revenue anticipation notes, size to be determined, in a competitive sale a week later.
Grossman, the former chief executive of fourth-generation family business Grossman Marketing Group in Somerville, Mass., and former Democratic state and national chairman, has a steep uphill climb to win the Democratic gubernatorial primary on Sept. 9.
A Boston Globe poll released three weeks ago show state Attorney General Martha Coakley with a 34-point lead, 50% to 16%, over Grossman despite the treasurer having won the party nomination in June. Coakley, though, blew a 31-point lead to Republican Scott Brown four years ago in the special election to replace the late Edward M. Kennedy in the U.S. Senate.
Patrick is not seeking re-election. Former federal health care administrator Don Berwick is the third Democrat. Businessman Charlie Baker has won the Republican nomination.
Regardless of outcome, Massachusetts will swear in a new governor and new treasurer in January.
"We have challenges right along," said Grossman, citing the state's unfunded pension liability, which according to Moody's has ballooned to $28.3 billion. Patrick and the legislature agreed this year to truncate the state's amortization schedule and increase pension contributions by 10% annually through fiscal 2017 and by 7% after that through the final payment in 2036.
"The commonwealth has benefited from conservative budgeting and sound financial practices over time," Fitch said in a report on Wednesday.
Fitch and Moody's also pointed to the state's high debt burden, with $19 billion in GO outstanding and $33.5 billion in total net tax-supported debt, though both rating agencies referenced the commonwealth's issuance of bonds to finance projects for which localities in other states would have paid.
Massachusetts, despite drawing down $140 million on its stabilization fund as part of its $36.5 billion budget for fiscal 2015, has one of the highest rainy-day accounts nationally. Massachusetts links deposits to the capital gains tax, making it one of the few states that links fund deposits to specific tax streams, according to Pew Charitable Trusts.