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EDITORIAL: Walker Stapleton fights to save PERA in Colorado

By: The Gazette editorial board
December 13, 2017 Updated: December 13, 2017 at 7:20 am
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Colorado teachers work hard for their wages and retirement benefits and deserve the truth from politicians.

The truth: Colorado's Public Employees' Retirement Association is headed for disaster. The pension was only 64.7 percent funded relative to liabilities in 2010. Back then, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 1 to cut benefits and boost contributions.

Legislators hoped the austerity measures would reduce the unfunded liability. At best, they only slowed the rate of increasing debt. Nearly eight years later, funding of 64.7 percent has slipped to 58.1 percent.

Since passage of Senate Bill 1, the plan's unfunded liability has grown by more than $1 billion each year.

If the trajectory continues, the plan will go bankrupt and retirees might suffer.

Municipal bankruptcies have shown public pensioners are not immune from massive cuts to pension benefits, and experts say looming bankruptcies of state pensions could leave retirees taking pennies on the dollar relative to expectations.

"People who have pensions, either they're already retired or they're in the system, the amount of their pension would be in jeopardy," said Kent Redfield, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois Springfield, as quoted by NewsChannel 20 in Illinois. "Those could be reduced."

Just ask a judge.

"Pension benefits are a contractual right and are not entitled to any heightened protection," explained U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes in 2013, while upholding Detroit's eligibility to file Chapter 9.

Colorado politicians deliver rosy assurances everything will be OK. They base this on bizarre expectations of consistent investment returns of 7.25 percent or higher.

State Treasurer Walker Stapleton has been the unwelcome voice of reality, explaining the naivete of crafting public policy on pie-in-the-sky optimism.

Stapleton is a businessman and financial whiz with an MBA from Harvard and an graduate degree from the London School of Economics. He bases projections on data and performance, as others whisper sweet nothings designed to keep public employees happy with the established political class.

Stapleton's consistent warnings about PERA were confirmed in November when S&P Global Ratings downgraded Colorado's credit rating outlook to "negative." The agency attributed the downgrade to a longstanding trend of PERA's funded ratios, which S&P said "have fallen well below those of similarly rated states."

"The negative outlook on all ratings reflects the state's long trend of annually contributing less than (actuaries say are needed) to its retirement systems," the S&P report said.

Stapleton, concerned about the state's credit and the security of retirees, recommends reforms that include freezing raises in benefit payments. Increases should resume, he says, only when the pension is solvent.

Meanwhile, the PERA board of directors wants only .5 percent reduction in raises from 2 percent to 1.5 percent. Gov. John Hickenlooper wants a reduction to 1.25 percent.

PERA gave retirees annual raises of 3.5 percent through much of the past two decades, far exceeding the average rate of inflation. Since the year 2000, annual inflation has fallen below 1 percent three times and exceeded 3.5 percent only once.

Politicians win quick and short-term political gain by raising benefits and ignoring the long-term consequences.

Stapleton is right to protect Colorado's public employees, taxpayers, and the state's credit. By advocating unpopular adjustments, he might slow or stop the steady decline of PERA. Today's young public employees should thank him for protecting their financial futures.

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