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Reports provide differing outlooks on Colorado retirement program

June 16, 2015 Updated: June 16, 2015 at 4:10 am
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DENVER - Dueling reports on Colorado's Public Employees' Retirement Association were released Monday.

One showed the huge economic impact PERA has across the state pumping billions into the economy via thousands of retirees. The other highlights a $25 billion unfunded liability that could threaten the future solvency of the state's pension system.

Both come a week before the PERA Board of Trustees receives an annual report that shows how the retirement funds performed last year and the all-important annual return on investment.

The reports represent a public relations battle being waged between those who fear PERA is not as financially stable as the entity purports, and those who believe the funds are on solid ground after significant changes were made to benefits and contributions in 2010.

"Public retiree spending sustains almost 30,000 jobs statewide - that's twice as many jobs as the entire agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting industries," according to a PERA press release about the report prepared by the economic analysis firm Pacey Economics.

The Colorado Pension Project, which seeks a "more sustainable and accountable system" sent a release about Risky Retirement: Colorado's Uncertain Future and Opportunities for Reform.

"Colorado's rising public pension costs are threatening workers' retirement security and funding for essential public services," the press release reads.

Eric Anderson, spokesman for the Colorado Pension Project, called the timing "dumb luck."

Katie Kaufmanis, spokeswoman for PERA, said she learned of the other report on Monday and hadn't had a chance to delve into it.

But she pointed to a third study that will be released mid-July, one that lawmakers required with a new law in 2014, that "will speak to some of the criticism" she saw on cursory review of the Risky Retirement report.

Here are highlights of the two reports.

Risky Retirement was published by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, a group that studies pensions.

The report found that despite changes in 2010 under Senate Bill 1, the unfunded liability - the amount the fund is projected to owe in future years over its anticipated revenues and assets - will grow for a decade before it stabilizes, then begins to decrease.

"The current level of pension debt is going to be maintained. A lot of the payback comes well in the future," McGee said. "The state of Colorado owes a significant amount of money to past workers. We think their current funding policy is inadequate."

His report used among other things PERA's Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, which will updated on Tuesday.

PERA assumes a 7.5 percent average annual return on investment of the next 30 years for its projections of when the fund will be able to pay off the unfunded liability. McGee points out that if that estimate is low by a half-percentage point, the unfunded liability will worsen into perpetuity. If the return is closer to 8.5 percent, the liability will be paid off before 2040.

The fund's five-year annualized return on the portfolio was 10.3 percent and the 30-year annualized return was 9.4 percent, according to the Pacey report.

It estimates $3.5 billion is paid out in benefits annually to Colorado residents, not including the value of health benefits, which in some rural areas can account for 14.3 percent of the local area payroll.

The report says the Colorado Springs region saw $413 million in PERA distributions in 2014 and the Denver metro-area received $1.8 billion.

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