Walker Stapleton calls out fellow Colorado Republicans ‘on the take’ with PERA for blocking pension reform

Author: Ernest Luning - November 6, 2017 - Updated: November 6, 2017

Better Colorado Now StapletonState Treasurer Walker Stapleton. (File photo by Ernest Luning/Colorado Politics)

Colorado Treasurer Walker Stapleton, a GOP candidate for governor, is criticizing fellow Republicans who participate in the state’s public employee pension plan, saying some are blocking reform because they’re “on the take” and unwilling to vote against their own financial interest.

A consistent critic of Colorado’s Public Employee Retirement Association policies, Stapleton is working on a bill for next year’s legislative session to throw elected officials off the plan in order to prevent what he describes as a fundamental conflict of interest, a spokesman said.

The $44 billion retirement fund — covering more than 560,000 current and former state employees — faces some $32 billion in unfunded liabilities, according to a recent report, a situation Stapleton has been arguing for years means PERA should be transitioned from a defined-benefits plan to a defined-contribution plan. As state treasurer, Stapleton holds an ex-officio seat on the 15-member PERA board but, he says, is regularly out-voted 14-1.

“As treasurer, I have been the longest, largest and loudest voice for reforming our public pension system,” Stapleton said Friday at a Denver Republican Party breakfast meeting. “And I have been accused of being a broken record on this. But it is critical we fix this, because this is the largest debt we have in state government — a debt that has grown by more than a billion dollars every year that I’ve been in the treasurer’s office, and a debt that is affecting dollars in our classrooms, the quality of K-12 eduction system, and the quality of cities providing needed services.”

Contrary to how the media has portrayed it, Stapleton maintained, it isn’t a matter of a Republican bashing unions or public employees. Instead, he said, it’s often those benefiting from PERA who won’t make the hard choices.

“The reason that reform has been so intractable is because it’s the haves vs. the have-nots,” he said. “Those who are on the take vs. those who aren’t. The message that I’ve come face-to-face with in statewide office is, there are a lot of Republicans who are on the take as well. There are a lot of Republicans who are a member of PERA’s defined-benefit plan. And when you ask them to take a vote against their economic self-interest, there are some principled Republicans, like (former Senate President) Bill Cadman and (Senate President) Kevin Grantham, that are willing to take that vote. But there are many Republicans who are not willing to take that vote, and that is why reform has been so slow in coming.”

A Stapleton spokesman, his gubernatorial campaign manager Michael Fortney, told Colorado Politics it isn’t news that there’s been a “huge conflict of interest” on the PERA board of trustees — 11 of its 15 members are participants in the pension plan — and in the Legislature, because whenever lawmakers vote on PERA policy, they have the potential to benefit financially from their decisions.

While it’s in the early stages, Fortney said Stapleton has been consulting with potential sponsors on legislation to kick elected officials off PERA to remove any conflicts.

“People shouldn’t see public service as a way to feather their own retirement nest,” he said.

A spokeswoman for PERA didn’t respond Monday to an inquiry about Stapleton’s remarks.

PERA reformers have had “some Pyrrhic victories,” Stapleton added on Friday. Last year, Stapleton told the group, a Denver Post editorial said he’s been right all along, and just this past week, Gov. Hickenlooper’s budget proposal says no more taxpayer money should go into PERA, something Stapleton said he’s been working on impressing upon the governor for seven years.

Hickenlooper, a Democrat, last week included a request for $94.7 million to fund a pay hike for state employees in next year’s $30.5 billion budget — amounting to a 3-percent across-the-board raise. In addition, however, the governor is asking that employees pay 2 percent more into their PERA plans starting in 2019, gobbling up two-thirds of the raise. The request to lawmakers also drops cost-of-living increases for current and former retirees from 2 percent to 1.25 percent for a period.


Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning is a political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has covered politics and government for newspapers and online news sites in Colorado for more than 25 years, including at the Highlands Ranch Herald, the Jefferson Sentinels chain of community newspapers and the Aurora Sentinel, where he was the city hall and cops reporter. After editing the Aurora Daily Sun, he was a political reporter and blogger for The Colorado Independent site. For nearly a decade, he was a senior political reporter and occasional editor at The Colorado Statesman before the 119-year-old publication merged with Colorado Politics in 2017.