Archive for category Colorado Politics

PERA Benefits Among Most Generous in the Country

Late last week, the redoubtable Andrew Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute published a state-by-state comparison of full-career public pension retirement benefits, in that organization’s monthly Economic Perspectives.  While news of PERA’s long-term fiscal problems won’t be a surprise to anyone reading this blog, it may come as a surprise to learn that Colorado ranks among the most generous states when it comes to that measure.

In nominal dollars, Colorado ranks fourth in the country, at just over $60,000 for an employee who spends his entire career in the state civil service.  The $60,420 per annum figure ranks just behind California and Alaska, and considerably behind Nevada’s $64,000.  When adjusted for the states’ relative cost of living, as calculated by the Council for Community and Economic Research, Colorado jumps well past both California and Alaska, into 2nd place.

Biggs also noted that the present value of these benefits can create “pension millionaires,” whose benefits exceed $1 million in today’s money.  When Colorado’s benefit is compounded at the maximum 2.0% COLA, and then discounted using a 3.5% risk-free discount rate, the total comes in at $1.25 million in 2014 dollars, assuming the beneficiary retires at 60 and lives to 82.5 years of age.

As Biggs points out, the need to stay for an entire career in order to collect benefits, at the same time that they forego Social Security benefits for those years, is a serious disincentive to retaining qualified and motivated public employees.  Those who leave – or arrive – in the middle of their career get shortchanged the most, since vesting and benefits are not proportional to the years served.

The problem here isn’t that workers are greedy, or that these benefits themselves are unsustainable.  It’s that the results are unfair to the majority of workers, who find their own benefits shortchanged in order to fund the retirements of full-career public servants.  A conversion to a defined contribution plan, where workers are always fully vested in their own contributions would help to solve this problem, and be much fairer to the majority of workers who do not spend their entire careers with the government.

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Dudley Brown, Self-Beclowns

I tend to avoid attacking Republicans here on this page, figuring that there are plenty of Democrats, and Democrats-with-bylines, who are paid to do that work.  Sometimes, though, you have an obligation to keep your own house clean.

Edgar Antillón, former Republican legislative candidate who now runs Guns For Everyone, a NRA Firearms Instruction company, suggested a “gay night” as a promotion.

Dudley Brown, head of Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, and would-be Colorado Republican kingmaker, posted this comment last night on Facebook:

This is beneath contempt, but it shouldn’t be a big surprise.  Brown has previously been implicated in a lawsuit over an anti-gay flyer used in a state senate primary.

Some will no doubt leap to Brown’s defense, pointing to his having been helpful in the two successful recalls, and the Recall Hudak Too campaign which resulted in her resignation.   That rather rings hollow when here he his, making an ugly attack on gays on the page of someone who’s on his side on his signature issue.  So much for building alliances and coalitions.

Worse than that, this kind of garbage makes principled opposition to redefining marriage, and principled support of religious conscience much harder to maintain.  It is not only possible, it is necessary, to make those arguments without rancor and hatred.  Brown’s very public bigotry makes it all to easy for those on the other side to caricature traditional conservative positions.

Full disclosure: I’ve had personal experience with Brown, although not over gays, but over guns.  Or rather, over his gun group.  In 2010, Brown took to my campaign Facebook page to complain that I hadn’t returned his candidate questionnaire, using that as the standard for calling me “not conservative.”  Given that the outcome of the race was just under 2-1 in favor of my Democrat opponent, Dudley’s efforts probably did not constitute her margin of victory.

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Act Now to Ensure a Solvent Colorado Public Employee Pension Plan

My introductory at-bat in the Independence Institute’s lineup at the Greeley Tribune:

The assumption of a 7.5 percent return masks considerable risk and volatility. Although catastrophic market years such as 2008 have historically been rare, smaller routine losses are to be expected. Those losses can force an already-underfunded system to eat its seed corn by paying benefits out of assets that should be earning returns.

As a result, considerable risk exists that in the future, the state will still need to cut benefits to those who are already retired, to raise taxes, to cut services, or all three.

There is a way out.

I suggest three reforms that would help solve the problem.  We’re no longer in a budget crisis.  The Democrats’ passion for spending every last dime that comes in on new programs that will cry poor in the next recession may fix that.  In the meantime, though, now would be a good time to fix this.

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What Does Morgan Carroll Have Against Middle-Class Health Insurance?

Democrat State Senate President Morgan Carroll is preparing to kill, for the second time in her legislative career, a bill that would provide Coloradans greater choice and lower cost in health insurance.  She has assigned to the so-called “Kill Committee” Senator Greg Brophy’s (R-Wray) bill that would permit out-of-state health insurance purchases for Colorado residents.  The “Kill Committee” is the State, Veterans, and Military Affairs Committee, which is stocked with reliable partisans of the majority party, who can be counted on to vote down unpopular legislation without its having to be assigned to a relevant committee of record.

Brophy’s stated hope is that somewhere, some insurance company will figure out how to offer an affordable plan, and that Coloradoans should be able to buy such a plan.

The idea has been offered before, both in Colorado and in other states, and it faces an uphill battle.

The National Conference of State Legislatures has compiled a list of similar state legislative efforts over the last few years, including some since Obamacare was passed.  This bill most closely resembles a law passed in Georgia, which permits out-of-state insurers to issue policies in that state.

A similar bill, HB08-1327,  was introduced in Colorado in the 2008 legislative session.  It was killed in Business and Labor Affairs, with then-Representative, now-Senate President Morgan Carroll casting the deciding vote against.  It would have permitted out-of-state insurers to sell here, regardless of whether they met the in-state licensing requirements.  By contrast, SB14-040 would require out-of-state insurers to meet licensing requirements for doing business in Colorado.  However, neither bill requires insurance policies to carry all of the individually mandated items that may raise the cost of health insurance here in Colorado by as much as 50%.

At the time, objections were raised that no interstate compact had been attempted; one wonders whether the Democrats will object to SB14-040 on the basis that interstate compacts are now explicitly permitted under Obamacare.

If so, Republicans can point to HB09-1256, and HB10-1163, both of which proposed Interstate Insurance Compacts, and both of which were killed in the Democrat-controlled legislature.  The former was passed out of committee as a study, and killed in the House Appropriations Committee.  The latter was permission to form an interstate compact, and was killed on a 7-4 party-line vote in the House State, Veterans, and Military Affairs Committee, the House “Kill Committee.”

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More On PERA & GASB

Today at PERA’s testimony in front of the Colorado legislature’s Joint Budget Committee, the subject of the revisions of GASB’s public pension accounting rules came up.  While PERA produced the usual song and dance about discount rates, one portion of the discussion was illuminating.

It turns out that each district that participates in PERA will have to show a pro-rated portion of that fund’s liability on its own balance sheet.  PERA makes a couple of comments about this; first, that this is an unusual liability that can’t be brought forward, and second, that there’s nothing that the district can do to reduce it.  The first comment is the usual stuff that public pensions always use to justify their higher discount rate.  The second requires a little explanation.

You need to remember that the unfunded liability is PERA’s, and it’s only being distributed for accounting reasons to the various districts.  The PERA funds are managed by PERA on behalf of the individual members, not on behalf of the districts.  The districts have an annual required contribution based on the salaries of the individual PERA members working there, but that’s it.  Their contributions go into the appropriate PERA fund, and become the property of PERA.  There’s no “JeffCo School Account” at PERA, or “Mesa County Employees” account.

Which means that there’s also no way for the individual district to discharge it own portion of PERA’s unfunded liability, even if PERA were permitted to take additional contributions from employers, which it’s not.

Suppose the School Fund has an unfunded liability of $10 billion.  Suppose 5%, or $500 million of that, is attributable to JeffCo School.  And suppose JeffCo, in a Herculean effort, raises $500 million in taxes to pay it off, and ensure that they never have to worry about their portion of PERA’s unfunded liability again.  JeffCo School cuts a check to PERA for $500 million.  And that money goes into the Big Barrel called, “PERA School Fund,” reducing its unfunded liability by 5%, to $9.5 billion.  And the next year, JeffCo’s Schools gets a Thank You Note, along with a notice from PERA that they are responsible for 5% of PERA’s School Fund unfunded liability, or $475 million.  That’s what PERA means when it says that this is a unique liability for districts – they can’t really do anything about it on their own, but there it sits, on their balance sheets, screwing up their ratios.

Wait, ratios?

Yes, ratios.  It turns out that the Colorado Department of Education does a Fiscal Health Analysis on the various school districts, and a key part of that analysis is certain ratios, three of which (Asset Sufficiency, Operating Reserve, and Change in Fund Balance) depend on the districts’ General Fund Balance.   CDE hasn’t disclosed yet how they’ll deal with this change, but if it were up to me, I’d more or less ignore it in that analysis.  The liability really belongs to PERA, not to the district, and since the legislature will ultimately fix (or not) the problem, it’s almost impossible to know how it relates to any district’s current demographics, employment, or finances.

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Greg Smith, and PERA’s Survivability Analysis

Last Thursday, Colorado PERA Executive Director Greg Smith gave his annual SMART Act testimony to the Joint Finance Committee of the Colorado General Assembly.  Since 2012, all departments of the Colorado state government have been required to testify during the interim concerning their operations, their efficiency, and the degree to which they are fulfilling their mission.

PERA recently changed its assumed long-term rate of return from 8% to 7.5%.  In light of that change, its amortization period – the time when PERA will have no unfunded liability, assuming a constant rate of return – has grown from 30 years, probably to something near 40 years.

During the Q&A session, State Rep. Lori Saine (R-Dacono) asked Smith about using a Monte Carlo simulation to test PERA’s long-term soundness.  As described in more detail here, averaging a given return over a period of time isn’t the same thing as getting that rate of return every year.  PERA’s portfolio might well average 7.5% over 40 years, and still go bust because its returns in the next few years are below average, leaving to try to make up the difference from a lower balance.  Rep. Saine was asking if PERA did or could run a simulated 40-year set of returns, and see how often the fund went bust and how often it stayed solvent at the end of that 40-year window.

Mr. Smith replied that yes, they do Monte Carlo simulations, and then proceeded to describe not those, but instead a sensitivity analysis available in the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR).  The sensitivity analysis is something else altogether.  It looks as what happens to PERA if the returns over 40 years are 6.5%, 7.5%, 8%, up to 9.5%, but it still assumes a constant rate of return.  This is a completely different analysis, one that admits the possibility of lower-than-expected long-term returns, but ignores the danger in a few years of very low short-term returns, or even a couple of years of severe losses.

Monte Carlo simulations model the year-to-year variability in return that is an inherent function of risk.  As a result, even funds that appear to be well-funded, or that appear to have a long-term path to being fully-funded, can show low likelihoods of staying solvent through their amortization periods.  Doing such an analysis helps to prevent unpleasant surprises, and is to be preferred to a simple sensitivity analysis such as the type PERA performs and publishes.

Regardless of one’s preference, the two shouldn’t be confused for each other.

You can hear the entire exchange here:

Play

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Devolving the Gas Tax

Over at Complete Colorado, the Independence Institute’s Dennis Polhill writes in support of a proposal to devolve the lion’s share of the federal gas taxing authority back to the states, and remove federal restrictions on the states:

The Transportation Empowerment Act, introduced by U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., gradually would lower the federal gas tax from the current 18.4 cents to 3.7 cents per gallon over five years. The legislation also would lift federal restrictions on state departments of transportation.

Not only would devolving the federal gas tax to the states result in a major boon to Colorado roads and bridges, it also would honor a promise made to the American people more than 50 years ago. In 1956, Congress passed the National Defense Highway Act to construct the Interstate Highway system. The temporary federal gas tax was promised to expire when construction was completed.

For all practical purposes, interstate highway construction was finished in 1982. Unfortunately, taxes almost never go away, or get smaller. Nor do government agencies or programs. Coincidentally, 1982 marks the same year roads outside the interstate system became eligible for federal funding. By tripling eligible mileage, the U.S. Department of Transportation used road revenues to fund other things more aggressively. Increasing amounts of gas tax revenue were siphoned to fund non-road programs, and congressional earmarks mushroomed.

For Colorado voters, the salient point is that we’ve been shorted on the deal, sending five cents per gallon to Washington that we never see back.  There was a time when federal development of large-scale road projects made sense, in order to avoid things like the Kansas Turnpike dead-ending in an Oklahoma field, because Oklahoma couldn’t get its act together:

But given that much of this money isn’t going to roads any more, anyway, putting an end to the Colorado-DC-Colorado round trip makes sense.

It’s certainly better than this monstrosity from Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) that would add 15 cents to the federal gas tax in order to make up for the money that they’re siphoning off to pet projects, a prospect he doesn’t want to admit to:

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On the Recalls, the Dems Have No Standing to Complain

In 82 BCE, Sulla returned to Italy, and touched off three years of Civil War.  By the end, he had killed tens of thousands of people, entered Rome by force, butchered thousands in civic buildings, and ordered the deaths of perhaps 5000 of the most prominent Romans.  He not only broke the taboo against using legions against Rome itself, he killed pretty much any Roman who had even thought to oppose him, and many who hadn’t.  As a result, he was able to leave office voluntarily, and wander the streets of Rome unprotected by any bodyguard.  His reforms took Roman governing law back to the rules it had operated under prior to the rise of Tiberius Gracchus about 60 years earlier, while still trying to deal with the land and military issues that led to Gracchus’s rise in the first place.

Sulla used radical means to achieve arch-conservative ends.  And yet, in the end, it was the radicalism that endured and the restoration that was forgotten.

To listen to the Denver Post, you’d think that the Colorado recalls were a similarly seminal moment in the destruction of our Republic.  And some Democrats agree.

Whatever the merits of using unconventional, if perfectly Constitutional, means to achieve politics ends, the Democrats have no room to complain.

The Democrats are the party that invented changing the rules in the middle of the game, and it didn’t start with Harry Reid and the Magical Disappearing Rulebook, or the Florida Supreme Court’s creative ballot accounting.

This is the party that has, here in Colorado, weaponized vote fraud this past year.  They’re the party who, in 2004, sued to allow anyone to vote a full ballot, non-provisional, in any precinct, without ID.

They’re the party that is suing its own citizens to overturn a 20-year-old Constitutional Amendment in order to raise their taxes without end.  It is the party that filibustered its own redistricting bill because it preferred its odds in court to having to negotiate Congressional districts with the other party.

The Democrats are the party that passed out of the State House a bill to overturn the Electoral College, by joining an interstate compact without Congressional sanction.  They cheerfully accepted out-of-state money for a popular referendum to apportion our Electoral votes proportionally, which would have reduced the value of winning the state from nine votes to one.

They sued to get an ineligible school board candidate declared “duly elected,” in order to have her disqualified, so that a favorable committee could appoint her successor.

It’s not as though Colorado Dems invented this game, they just learned it from their brethren elsewhere.  They’re the party that popularized the recall election in Wisconsin, after occupying the state capitol failed to achieve the desired results.  (I have half a mind to just blame this tantrum on recall-envy, given the different parties’ relative success in making the tactic stick.)  There, too, they politicized a state Supreme Court election, in an effort to overturn the laws that caused the uproar in the first place.  Most Wisconsinites weren’t aware that Supreme Court elections were partisan affairs, complete with allegations of physical assault.

In New Jersey, the late Senator Frank Lautenberg was only Senator at all because the party got a judge to agree that even though the law said they couldn’t replace Bob Toricelli on the ballot within 30 days of the election, it didn’t really mean it.

The Democrats will claim that this is just politics as usual, that the game is played by trying to change the rules on the fly.  If so, it reduces the Republicans’ sin to one of not being sufficiently shameless.

In other words, of not being enough like Democrats.

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Tidbits from the Gessler Campaign

One of the leading candidates for the Republican nomination to unseat sitting Governor John Hickenlooper is Secretary of State Scott Gessler.  Gessler has been a solid conservative, and has taken his share of arrows from Colorado’s progressive left for his insistence on ballot integrity and his resistance to the HB1013, the Democrat Weaponization of Voter Fraud Act of 2013.

This isn’t a post with an extended analysis of the governor’s race, but I did want to mention a couple of interesting items that haven’t gotten the play that I think they should have, mostly because they’re good stories.

First, Gessler essentially suspended much of his field operation (calls for contributions presumably went on as usual) in order to redeploy his staff on behalf of the Douglas County School Board reform candidates.  Those were important races not just for Douglas County, but also with state and national implications.  The unions essentially tossed everything they had into those races, reducing support to their Denver and Jefferson County candidates.  They were gambling that even if they lost there, a win in DougCo would send a warning message to other school boards.  They lost that gamble, in part because of the field support that Gessler gave them.

This is called, “leadership.”  To be sure, it wasn’t entirely selfless.  The information and visibility gained in a Republican-dense county will be helpful in both primary and general election campaigns.  But showing up for a fight that nobody would blame you for sitting out builds loyalty, and shows a willingness to sacrifice for the team.  In 1966, Richard Nixon campaigned all over the US for Republican Congressional candidates, all of whom won, and all of whom remembered it in 1968.  That Gessler was willing to do the same speaks well of him.  To the extent that there’s a concern here, it’s that he hasn’t done a better job of publicizing this story.

That actually could be a serious concern, since one of Gessler’s potential picks for Lieutenant Governor, State Rep. Calrice Navarro-Ratzlaff of Pueblo, is seen by many as more moderate than Gessler.  Now, that would be, in my mind, a silly reason not to support Scott.  Lt. Governors operate at the behest of the Governor.  And as this chart shows, in Colorado, that post is a launching pad to obscurity.  You have to go back to the 2nd Eisenhower Administration to find a Lt. Governor who was later elected to a significant statewide position in his own right.  This isn’t Reagan positioning Bush as his successor.

As a district captain, I have to retain strict neutrality when it comes to primary races, but that doesn’t preclude me from writing about interesting and informative aspects of the race.

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Changes to PERA’s Assumptions Not All Good News

Friday, the PERA Board decided to make two significant changes to their actuarial assumptions.  First, they lowered their expected return on their portfolio from 8% to a more realistic 7.5%.  Second, they lowered their inflation expectation from 3.5% to 2.8%.

This is being advertised as a more realistic set of assumptions, in effect, an admission against interest that outside players such as Treasurer Walker Stapleton have been agitating for for some time.  The lower rate of return will, according to the Denver Post report, raise the unfunded liability from $23 billion to $29 billion.

It’s true that the 7,5% rate is more conservative than 8%, and closer to the average rate of return being assumed by most public pension funds around the country.  On that basis, the change is to be welcomed.  But for a long time, I’ve felt that the rate of return was very much out of line.

In fact, the lower rate of return should have no effect on the unfunded liability.  The only reason that the unfunded liability will grow is that PERA will use the lower rate of return as the new discount rate.  Of course, as we’ve discussed before, the discount rate should be independent of the rate of return; it should be the state’s long-term cost of borrowing, or even the risk-free rate of return, the 30-year US Treasury rate.

In addition, many of the benefits of the lower rate of return are more than offset by the lower inflation rate.  Before, the real rate of return was 8 – 3.5, or 4.5%; now it’s 7.5 – 2.8, or 4.7%.  PERA is decreasing the increase in future liabilities here, by lowering the expected future increase in salaries.  This means that the net effect of both changes is to increase the real rate of return.

Unfortunately, we won’t know exactly how this plays out until PERA releases its next CAFR – next July, 8 months from now.

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