Teacher Protests Pension Problems
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In this April 27, 2018, photograph, a teacher carries a placard in support of funding the teacher and other public sector workers' pension fund during a rally in Denver. Rising pension costs are eating away at teacher pay in Colorado and other states. The pension issue has played a role in a teacher uprising sweeping the U.S. Thousands of Colorado teachers walked off the job and closed down schools last week. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

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Just because they've been voted on, the biggest issues of the 120-day Colorado legislative session are far from done.

Transportation is still a snowball rolling downhill toward November, and the dollars that will eventually be steered into roads, bridges and transit are hardly settled.

Lawmakers created a $32 billion solution to the state's public-pension plan, but it could be years before Coloradans know if a fix worked; the General Assembly celebrated a solution in 2010 to address the "downward trajectory" of the fund, and the hole only got deeper.

And with the election year, promises made this year don't necessarily mean promises kept.

Republicans cling to a one-seat majority in the Senate, while the Democratic majority in the House looks fairly comfortable with seven seats and few competitive districts in an election cycle that most expect to favor Democrats.

More immediately than next session, lawmakers have to watch and wait to see if the public thinks Senate Bill 1 to fund transportation is enough. Passed on the eve of the legislature's last day, it would put $645 million in transportation from the state budget in the next two years.

Then the state would borrow $2.33 billion and repay it with $123.6 million a year from the state budget, which includes just $50 million per year that isn't currently spent on transportation in the state.

Meanwhile, a coalition led by the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce could ask voters in November to pass a statewide sales tax of up to a penny on a $10 purchase for transportation. And a competing ballot question called Fix Our Damn Roads could ask voters to force the legislature to find enough in the budget eat year to repay $3.5 billion in bonds for transportation.

If either of those pass - and it's unlikely both would - then lawmakers will be slicing the transportation and state budget pies again next January.

If you like arguments over transit, toll lanes, priority lists and ski traffic, then you'll like the General Assembly for the foreseeable future.

"I think we've still got a giant hole in transportation," House Republican leader Patrick Neville of Castle Rock said. "It puts us in a better situation than we were before the session, but it's definitely not going to solve the problem."

Senate Republicans initially wanted $250 million in new money from the state budget for transportation. While it appears they got more than half that, if you consider the $123.6 million, really they got one-fifth with the new money for bonding at $50 million.

The choice of new taxes from the budget, as the Denver chamber is discussing, or more money strictly from existing taxes divided statehouse leaders, predictably, along party lines.

"I'm completely in favor of it," Neville said of Fix Our Damn Roads, which is seeking the no-new-taxes solution to transportation funding. The measure is backed by the libertarian-leaning Independence Institute in Denver.

House Assistant Minority Leader Cole Wist of Centennial didn't give the sales tax hike a good forecast.

"Let's look back at recent history at efforts to do statewide tax increases: They haven't passed," he said. "And I think this one also will not pass."

House Speaker Crisanta Duran pointed to the $9 billion the Colorado Department of Transportation says it needs to catch up with growth over the next decade, yet Republicans' more aggressive plan calls for just $3.5 billion. And it's a stretch for the state to pay for even that.

"If we all agree there's this $9 billion need, then we have to have a real conversation about having new revenue," Duran said.

She added, "I think people should be allowed to decide if they want to invest a little more."

As for public pensions, Duran thought the legislature was overly aggressive in tackling the $32 billion shortfall in the Colorado Public Employees' Retirement Association bank account over the next three decades.

She voted against a bill, which passed anyway, requiring that working public employees, retirees and taxpayers collectively put in another $1 billion a year - unless future legislatures decide not to pony up or to rewrite the deal.

Duran opposed asking employees' to pay more, a position supported by the teachers' union.

But it still rides on the whims of the markets where that money is invested. Gov. John Hickenlooper, though, thinks it will be years before the state needs to recalculate the pension for what today is more than 585,000 Coloradans.

"Nobody has a crystal ball," the governor said. "What's the rate of return? That's conjecture."

But he felt good about the compromise and noted that the legislation includes a trigger to tap workers, retirees and the state incrementally if the fund gets out of balance again.

"This will bring us into compliance, I feel very comfortable," Hickenlooper said of Senate Bill 200.

The oil and gas industry found hope for bipartisanship during the session, as bills on proximity to homes and schools, as well as extra considerations for public health and safety, were voted down.

The November election could shake that up, and, with it, the debate on oil-and-gas regulations. If either Jared Polis or Mike Johnston is in the governor's office, fracking could be headed for change. Both Democrats have promised to move the state to renewable energy by 2040, and rival Democrat Cary Kennedy has pledged to get the state there as soon as possible.

Since Republicans won back the state Senate in 2014, the demise of regulatory bills on the industry has been predictable: They pass in the House along party lines, then die in the upper chamber along party lines.

"Bipartisanship is supposed to be an anomaly during an election year, yet on the energy front in 2018, we saw a handful of bills with Democrat and Republican support make their way to the governor's desk," Dan Haley, the president and CEO of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association trade group, told Colorado Politics.

The legislature strengthened the 811 one-call system which contractors use before digging, and set new requirements for excavation, as well as increasing air permits for the industry by the state health department.

The legislature also reauthorized the Colorado Energy Office, making sure it includes fossil fuels alongside renewables, as well as changes to the state's oil and natural gas pooling laws.

Conservation Colorado, the state's largest environmental organization, saw its own victories this session, but cast a wary eye to the roadblocks put up by Senate Republicans.

"This session saw Senate Republicans once again prioritizing corporate profits over people," said Theresa Conley, advocacy director for the group. "For example, a bill to protect our rivers and streams from mining pollution was sent to the Senate's kill committee. Republican legislators also introduced bills to keep Colorado from taking proactive steps to curb climate change while Democrats witnessed the death of their bills that would have set aggressive goals for limiting carbon pollution.

"Despite hundreds of Coloradans speaking out, a handful of out-of-touch senators killed a bipartisan bill supporting electric vehicle infrastructure."

The record $29 billion budget for 2018-19 passed with more bipartisan support than the previous years' budgets, but that also came with concerns about how the budget is developed. House leaders Neville and Wist sought reforms to the budget process that would include putting more of the work into the hands of the committees of reference, all which have oversight over the 29 state agencies. The two Republicans told Colorado Politics their interest in expanding the budget process has nothing to do with the quality of work from the JBC; rather, it's born out of frustration with how little time lawmakers have to actually review the budget every year. They aren't alone; lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have shared that concern.

The timing for change couldn't be more apt. Four members of the Joint Budget Committee, with combined committee experience of 20 years, won't be back in 2019, all due to term limits. That leaves Republican Rep. Bob Rankin of Carbondale as the senior member with five years through the end of the 2018 session and Sen. Dominick Moreno of Commerce City, who is wrapping up his second year on the committee. Rankin is on board with more involvement by lawmakers outside of the JBC in the budget process, and at one point he planned to sponsor a bill to do just that but said he ran out of time.

"There are issues the budget committee could use help on because we cover so much," Rankin said. That includes the energy office last year, and this year's debacle over prison counts and the civil rights commission. "We need more buy-in on the resolution of those issues and we appreciate getting the broader legislature involved."

There's always next year.

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