Colo. lawmakers find common ground on filling state pension’s $32 billion hole

Author: Joey Bunch and Marianne Goodland - May 9, 2018 - Updated: May 11, 2018

Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver, gives a thumbs up while returning to her seat after speaking in the Colorado State House of Representatives. (Photo by Christian Murdock/Colorado Politics)

Colorado lawmakers cured — they hope — the state employees’ ailing pension plan in the waning minutes of the 120-day Colorado legislative session Wednesday night, a remedy that could help keep Colorado’s credit rating from taking a hit.

House and Senate negotiators reached a deal that was approved by both chambers. That should be a relief to the more than 585,000 members of the Colorado Public Employees’ Retirement Association (PERA).

Without balancing the ledger, the pension could have gone insolvent in a recession but would have certainly dragged down the state’s credit rating. That would have heaped interest in money borrowed by state and local government, draining dollars away from services and programs or raising pressure to hike taxes.

Senate Bill 200 spreads around the pain of filling a $32 billion shortfall over the next three decades, because the retirement fund currently has more money going out than it has coming in.

Taxpayers would pump $225 million annually into the fund, while reducing some benefits and eligibility requirements.

The deal calls for current workers to contribute an extra 2 percent of their income, and retirees will received a 1.5 percent annual cost-of-living allowance, down from the current 2 percent. Current retirees will receive no cost of living adjustment for two years.

The bill includes a trigger to adjust contributions and benefits in the future if the pension gets out of balance again, and it raises the age for retirement with full benefits from 58 to 64 years old.

The road to a solution was bumpy and fraught with tension and uncertainty. Votes rolled in slowly until the compromise got the majority it needed, passing 34-29.

With the state teacher’s union critical of the deal, the vote was a tough one for Democrats. House Speaker Crisanta Duran ultimately voted against the deal and was one of the Democrats who withdrew their name as a co-sponsor.

In the Senate, the bill passed 24-11, with all of the no votes coming from Democrats.

The bill passed with 50 minutes left before the mandatory midnight adjournment.

Democrats met in a caucus to weigh whether the deal was a good one. Gov. John Hickenlooper paid a visit, thanked them for their work on a compromise and urged them to choose wisely.

“It’s important to get it done this year,” he told reporters after. “I don’t think it’s going to get easier next year.”

Republicans won a major concession, acquiring the option of private 401(k)-type investments for local governments and state workers, but not teachers and other school employees, who make up about 60 percent of the PERA membership.

Democrats had been resistant to letting new employees bypass the pension, saying private investment aren’t as reliable in providing lifelong retirement security, while doing nothing to help shore up PERA.

Rep. Lori Saine, R-Firestone, said the bill buys Colorado time but only until the next recession, when lawmakers will have to revisit the pension structure. She supported it to guy the state some time, she said.

“This is not a victory,” she said. “This is treading water, barely.”

House Majority Leader KC Becker of Boulder spoke about the tough compromise.

“This has been a long road and a tough process and no side is happy about the result,” she said.

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch is the senior political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has a 31-year career in journalism, including the last 15 in Colorado. He was part of the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 and is a two-time Pulitzer finalist. His resume includes covering high school sports, the environment, the casino industry and civil rights in the South, as well as a short stint at CNN.