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GUEST COLUMN: Walker Stapleton wrong about pensions

By: MICHAEL MERRIFIELD
December 27, 2017 Updated: December 27, 2017 at 6:59 am
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On Dec. 13, The Gazette editorial board wrote an article entitled, "Walker Stapleton fights to save PERA in Colorado." This couldn't be further from the truth. Instead of helping PERA, Stapleton has picked an issue to use in his run for governor, while doing nothing but fearmongering. He needs to be a part of the solution or get out of the way.

Across the state of Colorado, PERA benefits many of our public employees - teachers, snowplow drivers, prison guards, along with here in Colorado Springs, our city and waste management employees.

These are folks who work for our communities every day. They're our family members, our kids' Little League coach, the person behind you in the grocery store, and the folks sitting next to you in church. They dedicate their lives to serving us.

Colorado is facing a well-documented teacher shortage due, in part, to teacher pay. Nationally, Colorado ranks last in providing teachers a competitive wage. Colorado's teachers only receive 67 cents out of every dollar in salary that nonteachers with similar education, experience and hours worked receive. A strong pension system is proven to have positive effects in the recruitment and retention of high quality educators.

El Paso County has nearly 12,000 retirees and another nearly 50,000 past or present PERA members. As a former teacher, I can tell you that the state made a promise to our public employees and the state must uphold it. The thousands of PERA recipients have paid into the system with every single paycheck - it is not their fault that the state made ill-advised policy decisions or decided to only make partial payments since 2001.

Most importantly, PERA was established before Social Security on the federal level and PERA recipients don't receive Social Security. Their only safety net in retirement is their modest pension. Freezing cost-of-living adjustments will have a real effect on our public worker retirees and our communities as a whole. If the cost-of-living goes up around the state, while retirement income stays the same, retirees will be hurt and our communities will suffer as a result.

According to the National Institute on Retirement Security, Colorado public employee retirees supported $6.3 billion in economic output in the state. That's $2.8 billion in direct economic impact that was supported by retirees' initial expenditures and an additional $1.9 billion in indirect impact resulted when these businesses purchased additional goods and services.

Additionally, $1.5 billion is generated in induced impacts occurring when workers employed by businesses as a result of the direct and indirect impacts made expenditures.

To put this into perspective, each dollar in taxpayer contributions to Colorado's public employee pension plans supported $6.82 in economic output for the state. This is real money being pumped into our small businesses and local economy every year - and Stapleton wants to cut that, creating an economic pothole for our communities.

Stapleton isn't a "financial whiz" - he's a political opportunist who sees an opening by attacking PERA.

Stapleton doesn't care about your kids' teachers or your communities' public workers - he's doing this for his political gain and he's playing The Gazette all the way to the political bank.

The editorial also got a few other things wrong. They declared that a 7.25 percent investment return is "pie-in-the-sky" thinking. The truth is over the past 5 years PERA has averaged an 8.5 percent rate of return and over the past 30 years has averaged 8.5 percent.

The Gazette also stated that "the current trajectory will lead to bankruptcy", which Stapleton is also fond of stating. The truth is that PERA is projected to be able to pay all of the promised benefits well into the future. The challenge is how long it takes PERA to become 100 percent funded, not preventing bankruptcy.

In the state Legislature, we are working on solutions for the 2018 session that uphold the promises we made to PERA recipients, while ensuring the retirement security of our future public workforce. I encourage Stapleton to join in those efforts, instead of being in the way of real progress.

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State Sen. Michael Merrifield is from Senate District 11, which represents Colorado Springs.

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