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Partisan differences about public employee unions surfaced Thursday during a House committee hearing on House Bill 11-1007, which would allow classified employees at Mesa State College in Grand Junction to opt out of the state personnel system.

The bill passed to the floor on a 7-6 vote by the House Economic and Business Development Committee, but not until after two hours of testimony and questions that at times highlighted the antipathy of some Republican lawmakers to public employee unions.

Scott Wasserman, a lobbyist for the state employee group Colorado WINS, bore some of the brunt of GOP questioning, with members asking him about use of member dues to fund political contributions.

Later, when questioning Mesa employee Tom Orrell, Rep. Kevin Priola, R-Brighton, referred to “Colorado Loses” and asked Orrell if the group had paid his travel expenses to Denver.

Orrell said no. He opposed the bill and said, “There is intense disagreement among classified staff about this bill.” Other Mesa employees testified in favor of the measure.

Some conservative GOP legislators have been highly critical of state employee groups ever since former Gov. Bill Ritter signed an executive order giving them a greater role, but not full union rights.

Mesa President Tim Foster said the idea of letting employees choose their system came from the college’s classified employees council.

If passed, the bill would allow classified employees to hold an election on whether they wanted to withdraw from the state system. If that was approved, individual employees could choose to stay with the state system or become exempt employees under the college’s own personnel system. Future employees would not have that choice and would become part of the college system.

PERA road show continues

This is the time of year when executives of the Public Employees’ Retirement Association make the rounds of key legislative committees, updating lawmakers on the system’s finances and other issues.

On Thursday it was the turn of the House and Senate finance committees to get the Power Point presentation by PERA Executive Director Meredith Williams.

Williams got questions from both Republicans and Democrats about PERA’s 30-year plan to reach financial solvency, particularly the plan’s assumption that system investments will yield an average 8 percent return over that time period. The PERA board reviews the expected rate of return every year.

Rep. Spencer Swalm, R-Centennial, wanted to know the details of the projections that led the PERA board to adopt the 8 percent assumption for 2011. Rep. Daniel Kagan, D-Denver, asked if retiree benefits would have to be reduced if the 8 percent assumption is scaled back.

Williams circled around that question, saying that “will require an increase in revenues flowing to the system or a decrease in benefit liabilities,” adding that “reducing benefit liabilities is a fairly difficult undertaking” because of legal issues.

PERA and the state are facing legal issues over Senate Bill 10-001, the pension rescue legislation passed last year. A key feature of the law reduced retiree cost-of-living adjustments to 0 last year and to 2 percent this year. The adjustments had been 3.5 percent, and a group of retirees have sued, claiming the change violates the contracts clauses of both the federal and state constitutions.

Greg Smith, PERA general counsel, told lawmakers that the case is moving slowly. He noted trial is set for February 2012 and that it “probably will be three to five years realistically to get a resolution from the [state] Supreme Court.”

Once it is decided, “This is going to be a very significant case from a nationwide perspective,” Smith said.

The PERA officials told the committee that investments had a 17 percent rate of return in 2009 and will have higher than 8 percent for 2010, after last year’s earning are finally calculated next spring.

See this story for what PERA execs told the JBC on Jan. 5 and this presentation from PERA.

In other news

Another piece of charter school legislation, House Bill 11-1089, was introduced in the House Thursday. The bill would expands the types of federal grants for which a charter school can apply without the permission of its local school board, but schools couldn’t apply for grants made available under federal special education law. The State Charter School Institute would be the oversight agency.

The bill would expand a 2010 law that gave charters more freedom to apply for grants.

The bill has 19 Republican sponsors, most of them in the House, Rep. Kathleen Conti, R-Littleton, and Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, are the prime sponsors.

The Senate Education Committee voted 8-0 to pass both Senate Bill 11-029 and Senate Joint Resolution 11-004. The bill would change reporting and transparency requirements for the State Land Board, and the resolution would add the House and Senate education committees to the list of legislative panels to which the board reports.

The board manages state school trust lands, which provides funds for the Build Excellent Schools Today construction program and a small amount of money for general state school support. Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, is the main promoter of the measures, which are supported by the land board.

Use the Education Bill Tracker for links to bill texts and status information.

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