Colorado state Rep. Polly Lawrence hopes to convince Republicans in a run for treasurer that her small business and legislative experience will bring accountability to government.
Lawrence spoke with Colorado Politics last week to announce her run to become the next custodian of the state’s funds, joining a field that currently includes two other Republicans.
“This isn’t about day trading with the treasurer’s office, this is about making sure that those tax dollars are safe and they’re invested wisely and conservatively, and that’s something that we have certainly focused on with our business,” Lawrence said.
She plans on announcing her run for treasurer Tuesday before GOP supporters in Grand Junction, arguing that the Grand Junction and rural areas of the state are where people deserve the most attention because those areas have been slower to recover from the economic downturn.
“Not everything is the Denver metro area,” Lawrence said. “Rural Colorado and especially the Grand Junction, Western Slope, area has been hit extremely hard.”
Sitting in her Littleton office on the outskirts of town, about 20 miles south of Denver, Lawrence looks up at the model trucks and cranes that her husband, R.J.’s, father assembled at the 93-year-old construction business.
Lawrence draws upon her years of experience at the business, where she started as a flagger, and evolved into a contract manager, estimator, project manager, and job cost analyzer.
The heavy civil construction firm continues to be run by family, with R.J. being a fourth generation owner of the business, and the Lawrence’s kids assuming the fifth generation of leadership.
Lawrence joked that she attempted to convince her children not to enter the family business, but that they simply wouldn’t stay away.
“We treat all of our employees like family, and it’s about watching the bottom line, because every penny counts in a family-owned business,” Lawrence said.
A tough primary battle ahead
Elected to office in 2012, Lawrence rose to the position of assistant minority leader under former House Republican Leader Brian DelGrosso of Loveland. But Lawrence faced some setbacks in legislative leadership at the end of last year, despite having raised more money for the caucus during the 2016 election than ever before, at around $1.5 million.
Unhappy with the results of the election for House candidates, conservatives led an effort to remove the caucus’ leadership, ousting Lawrence. Republicans lost three seats in the House, and chose Rep. Patrick Neville of Castle Rock, one of the state’s most conservative elected officials, to lead them.
DelGrosso was term-limited after last year. Lawrence was expected to replace him in this year’s session, but after disappointing results from last year’s election, she said she did not have the caucus votes, and so she decided not to float her name as a candidate for the leadership position.
It remains a question whether bad blood still lingers within the conservative base of the party. But Lawrence doesn’t appear concerned.
“I can talk to just about any group out there and I’m looking forward to the primary,” she said. “I think I bring a very balanced perspective to this office … I have worked with candidates all across the state.”
Already announced in the race on the Republican side is fellow state Rep. Justin Everett, a 45-year-old third-term representative from Littleton who believes he can motivate the conservative wing of the party. Also announced on the GOP side is Routt County Treasurer Brita Horn.
On the Democratic side, state Rep. Steve Lebsock of Thornton has announced a run.
Other candidates could enter the race in the Republican primary, including Brian Watson, the founder and chief executive of Denver-based Northstar Commercial Partners, a commercial real estate investment firm.
Consulting Lawrence’s campaign is former House Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, who when asked why he chose to work with Lawrence, he answered, “Polly.”
“She is a doer, she’s not afraid to kick down the doors and turn over desks, and at the same time she’s able to sit down and find common ground,” McNulty said. “Those are increasingly rare traits these days.”
Perhaps the biggest issue facing the next treasurer is the long-term stability of the state’s retirement system for public employees, something that current Republican Treasurer Walker Stapleton has been pointing to for seven years. Stapleton is term limited after next year.
PERA officials are considering new reforms to address a minimum $32 billion unfunded liability. The state treasurer sits on the PERA board as an ex officio member.
The number of years to fully fund the plan has increased to 75 years for the school division and 55 years for the state division, which is outside the 30-year target set by the board. Under projections from 2015, it would have taken PERA about 40 years to be fully funded overall.
“I’m glad that they’re finally recognizing that there is a $32 billion debt hanging out there that is going to affect every person in Colorado,” Lawrence said of PERA officials, who only recently acknowledged that additional reforms are needed.
Since 2010, PERA officials have been urging patience, pointing to Senate Bill 1 at the time, which included workers taking a hit on their annual cost of living adjustment, while employers increased contributions.
PERA managers are considering several changes, which they would have to ask the legislature to approve, including once again looking at modifications to contribution levels from employers and employees, increasing the qualifying age of retirement, and how the plan calculates highest average salary payments, to name a few.
Lawrence is supportive of taking a look at all of those proposals, pointing to her experience as a small business owner as the appropriate background to take on the challenges. Up until last year, Lawrence Construction was a union contractor. But the employees decided to go non-union because the construction business could offer a better package than the unions could, Lawrence said.
“It mirrors what’s going on with the state,” she explained. “We paid fees into the union fund … but we had no say on how that money is invested and what’s done with it. Our employees were not guaranteed the pension the union promised.”
Closing the ‘revolving door’ and ‘year-end spending’
Another issue Lawrence would like to work on as treasurer is closing end-of-year government spending, which is done to boost department budgets, she said.
Lawrence also would like to end the practice of public employees establishing a purchase contract with a private company, which involves negotiating the terms of the contract, and then once the contract is awarded, leaving the state to work for the private company.
On the year-end spend situation, Lawrence said, “At the end of each fiscal year, you’ll notice that different departments buy new computers, new chairs, cars for their managers, that may not have been in their original budget request, but they have money left and it needs to be spent so they can show that we need all that money for the next business year.
“Think about that across the board in every department. If they’re doing that, how much money could go back into the general fund that could be used for transportation?”
McNulty said one of the reasons he agreed to work with Lawrence on the campaign for treasurer is that she is not solely focused on PERA reform.
“One of the questions I asked her is, ‘What do you want to do? Is this just going to be the PERA show?’” McNulty recalled. “She said, ‘No. We need to reform PERA, but for me, I want this to be an office dedicated to accountability.’ That was a big deal for me.”