Returning Lawmakers Spotlight Transportation, Sexual Harassment, PERA Reform

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<p>(Sam Brasch/CPR News)</p>
<p>Colorado House Speaker Crisanta Duran speaks at the opening of the legislative session on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018.</p>
Photo: Crisanta Duran, Opening Day 2018 Legislature
Colorado House Speaker Crisanta Duran speaks at the opening of the legislative session on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018.

State lawmakers kicked off the 2018 legislative session by highlighting their priorities for governing, and for governing themselves as well, after allegations of sexual harassment against members surfaced late last year.

Republican leaders say they plan to fight for road funding without raising taxes, closely examine Medicaid spending, and seek to cut government regulation.

Democrats have hinted that nearly $1 billion in unanticipated funds expected for the new budget year will be spent on a number of issues, including transportation and education.

“Additional funding will allow us to improve our roads and bridges, to maintain our existing infrastructure and avoid costly repairs, and to create more transportation options for more people, including bus and rail service and flexible transportation options for elderly Coloradans and those with disabilities,” said House Speaker Crisanta Duran. She wants to spend money “that will benefit our entire state.”

At the same time, “education remains one of our state’s greatest challenges. While some of our schools are thriving, others are struggling mightily. The state simply doesn’t have the money right now to make sure every boy and girl in Colorado has the tools to succeed and reach their full potential. Some students are being left behind.”

Republicans in both chambers insisted that roads take priority and that those funds be used to issue bonds to address a $9 billion transportation backlog, as well as new projects. Senate Republicans went so far as to make that the first bill they introduced this year.

“There isn't exactly a Democrat way or a Republican way to fill a pothole, but I'd argue there is a Colorado way," said Senate President Kevin Grantham.

“We can finally expand the I-25 gap from Monument to Castle Rock,” Grantham said. “We can finally expand I-25 North, and so we can finally expand the I-25 mountain corridor. Let's get it done.”

“We can build, newer safer roads and bridges without raising taxes,” House Minority Leader Patrick Neville said, echoing his Senate colleagues. And he was very clear that by transportation, he didn't mean buses, light rail, “bike paths, or special lanes for pogo sticks. I now use the phrase ‘road and bridges’ because I want voters to know what I mean.”

Lawmakers across the spectrum agreed on the need to address the perilous finances of the state’s Public Employees Retirement Association, known as PERA. The program faces an unfunded liability of around $30 billion. Legislators want to pay it down to put state finances on more stable footing, but disagree strongly on exactly how to do that.

Grantham said any changes that require more taxpayer dollars should come with major structural reforms to PERA.

“We have to stop digging the hole at the same time we are trying to fill it,” Grantham said. “The magnitude of the problem is larger than many believe – very possibly PERA is underfunded in excess of $55 billion. This is large enough to affect the credit rating of the State and public institutions – and raise bonding costs for all important public construction projects. This unfunded liability is a debt in excess of $10,000 per man, woman, and child in Colorado.”

Democrats worry such "structural changes" could mean more cuts to retiree benefits or a move away from a pension system toward 401k-style accounts.

PERA needs reform, Duran said. “But it would be unfair to balance PERA solely on the backs of hard-working public servants. Likewise, slashing cost-of-living adjustments for retired state employees could put many of them deeper in the hole every time the cost of living rises. ​Our goals must include a PERA solution that ensures its long-term solvency while being fair to current employees and retirees.

The issue of sexual harassment was also front and center in remarks by both Duran and Grantham.

Three sitting assembly members are being investigated for sexual misconduct, most notably Thornton Democrat Steve Lebsock. Two women have filed formal complaints against the Thornton Democrat and nine others have made accusations, some anonymously. The allegations include claims he unbuttoned a blouse and asked a lobbyist for sex.

Gov. John Hickenlooper and House Speaker Crisanta Duran, both Democrats, have called for his resignation. And legislative leaders hope to revise their sexual harassment policies and address an environment many say is far too permissive.

“I don’t think anybody here is of the belief that the status quo is working, or that action shouldn’t be taken. That’s why I’m proud to work alongside the leadership in both houses to take steps to ensure that our Capitol remains a safe, welcoming and respectful work environment for all doing business here,” Grantham said.

Duran talked about the harassment issue in more broad terms.

“The hurdles of harassment and discrimination faced by women, people of color and people with disabilities should have been leveled a long time ago,” she said. "People in our country are speaking out like never before about harassment, sexism and discrimination. Let our actions show that the intolerable will be tolerated no more.”

In the House, many female lawmakers wore black, in solidary with the #MeToo movement and victims of sexual harassment.