Who Is In Charge

PERA plan: “Work longer, pay more, receive less”

There was no good news in a 90-minute legislative discussion Thursday afternoon on the financial future of the Public Employees’ Retirement Association.

The PERA board has proposed a sweeping and complex plan designed to bring the recession-battered pension plan to solvency within 30 years. Board members and executives met with members of the Joint Budget Committee to answer questions on the plan.

Summing up the effects of the proposal on civil servants and retirees, PERA Executive Director Meredith Williams said, “So, essentially they’ll work longer, pay more and receive less.”

Public Employees' Retirement Association headquarters in Denver.
Public Employees' Retirement Association headquarters in Denver.

The rescue plan wouldn’t increase employee payroll deductions but would increase employer contributions – including from funds that otherwise would go for salary increases – and, for some workers, would raise the retirement age and reduce the salary base on which a pension is calculated.

The most controversial part of the plan, at least based on the volume of e-mail flowing into legislators’ in-boxes, is a proposal to reduce most retirees’ annual cost-of-living increases from 3.5 percent to 2 percent. It’s estimated that the current COLA would provide a third of the pension benefits over the retirement of a worker who retired in 2008.

The future of PERA – and the cost of fixing it – is of high interest to the Colorado education community. Of PERA’s 190,684 active members, 118,547 are in the school division, which includes all districts in the state except Denver. (DPS employees and retirees will enter the system Jan. 1 as a separate division.) Some 44,806 people receive benefits from the school division. Thousands of higher education employees also belong to PERA, as part of the state division.

Its investments hollowed out by the recession, PERA’s net assets available for benefits dropped from $43.1 billion at the end of 2007 to $30.8 billion at the end of 2008, a loss of more than 25 percent. The system pays about $3.1 billion in benefits a year and receives about $1.7 billion in contributions from covered employees and their employers. PERA overall is about 70 percent funded.

“Certainly these are scary times,” Williams said. “Right now we’re projected to run out of money during the lifetime of most of our members.” Despite the pain imposed by the plan, Wilson said, “It’s cheaper, more cost effective and less painful to act now.”

Some 20 percent of the money needed for the plan would come from employer and employee contributions and the rest from benefit cuts.

Thursday’s discussion was detailed and technical at times; here are some highlights.

They can’t take my COLA!

PERA officials believe retirees’ cost-of-living increases can be reduced because of legal precedent that allows doing so in times of “actuarial necessity” – legalese for the plan will go broke without changes being made.

“We believe the COLA can be modified” based on actuarial necessity, said Greg Smith, PERA chief operating officer and general counsel. “We believe that actuarial necessity exists today. … It is critical that we be able to modify the retiree COLA.” Without doing that, Smith said it would take an “extraordinary amount” of contributions for the plan to achieve solvency.

Many retirees have complained to legislators and others that they were told by human relations staff and in paperwork that the 3.5 percent COLA was guaranteed, so changing it would amount to breaking a contract.

“No matter what an employer hands out, if it doesn’t match the law, it’s not binding,”
Smith said.

Will it all end up in court?

Asked if PERA expects any changes approved by the legislature to end up in court, Smith said, “There is some speculation that it will end up in the courts. … It’s reasonable to expect litigation.”

Whom can we blame?

While neither PERA officials nor current legislators explicitly pointed fingers, there seemed to be general agreement that legislation passed in 2000 helped contribute to the current problem, During the height of the tech boom, 1999 and 2000 were the only two years that PERA has been fully funded in its 78-year history.

In 2000 lawmakers responded by effectively reducing contributions and raising benefits. “That’s kind of where it started,” Williams said.

But when asked if today’s problems could have been avoided if the legislature hadn’t been so generous in 2000, Williams said, “I think not,” saying that the economic crash in 2008 was just too big.

In 2004 and 2006 the legislature did increase contributions and tighten benefits for new employees, but Williams said lawmakers couldn’t go further then because  “We did not have an actuarial necessity. We could not make that legal case. Today we can.”

Don’t wait for the next bull market

Some lawmakers have asked – hopefully – if PERA could rescue itself by more aggressive investment strategies or be rescued by another market boom.

“That would be like going to Black Hawk and doubling down with the rent money,” said Susan Murphy of Denver, one of three PERA trustees who, by law, are neither members of nor beneficiaries of the pension system.

“That was our Plan B,” quipped Rep. Jack Pommer, D-Boulder and JBC chair.

Do your homework

Follow the money

In Denver school board races, incumbents outpacing challengers in campaign contributions

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver school board vice president Barbara O'Brien speaks at a press conference at Holm Elementary.
Donations to Denver school board candidates as of Oct. 12
    Barbara O’Brien, At-Large: $101,291
    Angela Cobián, District 2: $94,152
    Mike Johnson, District 3: $81,855
    Rachele Espiritu, District 4: $73,847
    Jennifer Bacon, District 4: $59,302
    Robert Speth, At-Large: $38,615
    “Sochi” Gaytán, District 2: $24,134
    Carrie A. Olson, District 3: $18,105
    Tay Anderson, District 4: $16,331
    Julie Bañuelos, At-Large: $7,737

Three Denver school board incumbents brought in more money than challengers seeking to unseat them and change the district’s direction, according to new campaign finance reports.

Board vice president Barbara O’Brien has raised the most money so far. A former Colorado lieutenant governor who was first elected to the board in 2013 and represents the city at-large, O’Brien had pulled in $101,291 as of Oct. 12.

The second-highest fundraiser was newcomer Angela Cobián, who raised $94,152. She is running to represent southwest District 2, where there is no incumbent in the race. The board member who currently holds that seat, Rosemary Rodriguez, has endorsed Cobián.

Incumbent Mike Johnson, who is running for re-election in central-east District 3, brought in far more money than his opponent, Carrie A. Olson. In a three-way race for northeast Denver’s District 4, incumbent Rachele Espiritu led in fundraising, but not by as much.

O’Brien, Cobián, Johnson and Espiritu had several big-money donors in common. They include former Denver Center for the Performing Arts chairman Daniel Ritchie, Oakwood Homes CEO Pat Hamill and Denver-based oil and gas company founder Samuel Gary. All three have given in past elections to candidates who support the direction of Denver Public Schools, which is nationally known for embracing school choice and collaborating with charter schools.

Meanwhile, teachers unions were among the biggest contributors to candidates pushing for the state’s largest school district to change course and refocus on its traditional, district-run schools. The Denver Classroom Teachers Association Fund gave the most money — $10,000 — to candidate Jennifer Bacon, a former teacher who is challenging Espiritu in District 4.

It gave smaller amounts to Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who is running against Cobián in District 2; Olson, who is challenging Johnson in District 3; and Robert Speth, who is running in a three-person race with O’Brien. Speth narrowly lost a race for a board seat in 2015. A supplemental campaign filing shows Speth loaned himself $17,000 on Oct. 13.

The two candidates who raised the least amounts of money also disagree with the district’s direction but were not endorsed by the teachers union and didn’t receive any union money. Tay Anderson, who is running against Espiritu and Bacon in District 4, counts among his biggest donors former Denver mayor Wellington Webb, who endorsed him and gave $1,110.

In the at-large race, candidate Julie Bañuelos’s biggest cash infusion was a $2,116 loan to herself. As of Oct. 11, Bañuelos had spent more money than she’d raised.

With four seats up for grabs on the seven-member board, the Nov. 7 election has the potential to shift the board’s balance of power. Currently, all seven members back the district’s direction and the vision of long-serving Superintendent Tom Boasberg. Mail ballots went out this week.

The new campaign finance reports, which were due at midnight Tuesday and cover the previous year, show that several of this year’s candidates have already raised more money than the candidate who was leading the pack at this time in the 2015 election.

O’Brien’s biggest contributor was University of Colorado president Bruce Benson, who gave $10,000. Other notable donors include Robin Hickenlooper, wife of Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper; Lieutenant Governor Donna Lynne; and billionaire Phil Anschutz.

Several Denver charter school leaders, including Rocky Mountain Prep CEO James Cryan and KIPP Colorado CEO Kimberlee Sia, donated to O’Brien, Johnson, Espiritu and Cobián.

Political groups are also playing a big role in the election. The groups include several backed by local and state teachers unions, as well as others funded by pro-reform organizations.

Following the money

Douglas County slate that favors continuing school voucher court case is ahead in early fundraising, records show

Former State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. Scheffel is now running for the Douglas County school board. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A group of candidates that largely supports the direction of the Douglas County School District, especially its embrace of school choice policies, has raised nearly $100,000 in campaign contributions, new financial records show.

The group, which calls itself “Elevate Douglas County,” topped its competition, the “Community Matters” slate, by more than $30,000 in monetary contributions to committees for individual candidates.

A lot is at stake in the south suburban Denver school board contest. A majority of seats on the seven-member school board are up for grabs, putting the philosophical direction of the state’s third largest school district on the line.

For eight years, the school board has pushed a conservative education reform agenda that included developing a voucher program that would allow parents to use tax dollars to send their children to private school and establishing a market-based pay system for teachers.

While the Elevate slate has promised to reconsider and tweak many of the board’s most controversial decisions, such as teacher pay, the Community Matters slate has promised to roll back many of the previous board’s decisions.

The contrast between the two groups is most stark on the issue of the school district’s voucher program. Created in 2011, the voucher program has been tied up in courts ever since. The Elevate slate supports continuing the court case and, if there is community support, reinstating the program. The Community Matters slate staunchly opposes vouchers and would end the court case.

According to records, the Elevate slate raised a total of $98,977 during the first campaign reporting period that ended Oct. 12. Grant Nelson raised the most, $34,373. The three other candidates — Ryan Abresch, Randy Mills and Debora Scheffel — each raised about $21,000.

All four candidates received $6,250 from John Saeman, a Denver businessman and the former chairman of the Daniels Fund. The foundation has financially supported the school district’s legal battle over the voucher program.

Other major contributors to the Elevate team are Ed McVaney, the founder of JD Edwards, and businesswoman Chrystalla Larson.

The Community Matters slate raised a total of $66,692 during the same period. Candidate Krista Holtzmann led the pack, raising more than $21,000. Her teammates — Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor and Kevin Leung — raised between $13,000 and $15,000 each.

Among the major donors to the Community Matters slate are Clare Leonard and Herschel Ramsey. Both Parker residents gave $1,000 each to all four candidates.

The campaign finance reports that were due Tuesday tell only part of the story. Earlier this week, special interest groups working to influence the election were required to report their spending.

The American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers union, has pumped $300,000 into the race in an effort to support the Community Matters slate.

Meanwhile, Americans For Prosperity, a conservative political nonprofit, is running a “social welfare” issue campaign promoting school choice. Because the nonprofit is not directly supporting candidates, it is not required to disclose how much it is spending. However, the organization said in a statement the campaign would cost six-figures.

Correction: This article has been updated to better reflect the Elevate slate’s position on reinstating the school district’s proposed voucher program.