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State treasurer says he’s fine with being ‘the herald of bad news’

Reporters are assembling to hear State Treasurer Dean Martin announce that Arizona's cash-strapped government will have to borrow money for the first time since World War II.

Aides scurry to finalize numbers on handouts, translate information for Spanish-language media and locate a podium for the news conference.

Martin is in his office, connecting printouts into a large display showing the general fund's daily balance. He'll use it to illustrate how a scheduled payment to schools would push the state's finances into the red.

He has no one to assemble the chart for him. Martin said he cut an assistant's position almost a year ago to use the money elsewhere due to the bleak budget situation.

Martin is Arizona's banker, keeping track of billions flowing through state accounts. In these tough economic times, he has turned what was once a little-noticed office into a megaphone for sharing grim information that he says politicians and the public need to hear.

But he doesn't mind being what he called the "herald of bad news," even if it costs him another term.

"I'd make a whole lot more money if I ever lost an election," he said. "That's why it doesn't bother me to go out and tell the truth. That's my job."

Dennis Hoffman, an economist at Arizona State University's W.P. Carey School of Business, said Martin is managing a difficult job in a nightmarish situation.

"I've got a lot of compassion for people who have got to literally be there day to day to pay the bills right now, because there's absolutely no money coming in whatsoever," Hoffman said.

Martin, a Republican, said he never intended to run for office. He enjoyed his work in marketing and database development, and he was content operating behind the scenes to help elect candidates who shared his conservative ideology.

But when a state Senate candidate dropped out late in the 2001 campaign, friends turned to Martin, he said, thinking a man with an entertainer's name had an edge in a shortened campaign.

Martin, who said his parents named him not thinking the singer would have much staying power, won handily and served three terms representing northern areas of the Valley before running for treasurer in 2006.

He took over an office mired in scandal. The former treasurer, David Petersen, resigned in 2006 after pleading guilty to charges of filing a false or incomplete financial disclosure statement.

"Because there were such big problems with the previous administration, everyone that's here wants to help improve the office," Martin said.

In his office on the first floor of the State Capitol's Executive Tower, Martin works around piles of documents, graphs and empty water bottles that cover nearly every inch of his desk. Across the room, a cluttered conference table looks more like a landfill than a meeting place.

"I have flat-surface syndrome," he said, joking about a compulsion to cover any flat surface with paper.

A sketch of Ronald Reagan looks down as Martin works.

Martin said he learned from Reagan's example not to get caught up in the power and prestige that come with elected office. He shares the former president's penchant for self-deprecating humor, calling himself a geek while proudly showing off computers that allow him to track market and company performance.

"I'm a nerd," he said. "I love not only technology, I love data, information, and this is the best place in the world because you have at your fingertips anything and everything."

That technology and data allow portfolio managers to keep the pulse of global financial systems and trade as much as $2 billion per day in state assets.

Secretary of State Ken Bennett, who was president of the Senate from 2003 to 2007, describes Martin as a hard worker who tackles as many issues as he can.

"He was known for sponsoring lots of bills," Bennett said. "You had to really work hard to keep up with him."

Martin sponsored bills to lower the business property tax rate and improve government transparency, which he said is important to being a good steward of tax dollars.

"This is not our cash," he said. "This is the public's money."

He uses that philosophy in the treasurer's office, where he is creating what he calls an "early warning system" to keep track of the state's daily finances and use historical data to project future shortfalls.

Martin said that system will keep forecasting budget deficits in the billions if state leaders don't rein in spending.

"Without some fundamental changes in the ways that this state plans for fiscal emergencies, we're doomed to repeat this every time the economy turns down," he said. "It worries me that we will not fix this."

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