State Treasurer Stapleton still concerned about Colo. retirement fund’s solvency

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Colorado Department of the Treasury
<p>Colorado Treasurer Walker Stapleton.</p>
Photo: Walker Stapleton
Walker Stapleton is Colorado's state treasurer.

Colorado Treasurer Walker Stapleton is a man responsible for billions of dollars, through investing taxpayers' money and sitting on the boards of several major funds.

The Republican won a second term in November's election and took some time recently to sit down with Colorado Matters to talk about his concerns and priorities for the next four years. Here are some highlights of that interview:

On the health of Colorado's public employee pension (PERA):

More than a half-million people belong to PERA, and Stapleton says that despite changes made in recent years to get the fund on a more stable fiscal footing, he's still concerned about its long-term solvency. Currently PERA only has enough cash to pay about 65 percent of its obligations to current and future retirees, which Stapleton says puts it in the bottom fifth of state pension funds nationwide. In his first term, the treasurer fought successfully to get PERA to lower the estimated rate of return on its investments from 8-percent to 7.5-percent and he would like fund managers to be even more conservative:

"The game that goes on -- the shell game in respect to public pension systems--- is that you set investment assumptions as high as possible and hope for lollipops and rainbows and then you pervasively under fund the plan... and my perspective is, let's get to a realistic, conservative investment assumption and then properly fund the plan so that we're not creating in accounting terms what is called a deferred liability."

On whether he supports asking voters to let the state keep TABOR refunds:

State revenues are growing rapidly enough that residents could start receiving refunds as early as this year, as required by the Taxpayers Bill of Rights. Some lawmakers have suggested sending a measure to voters allowing Colorado to instead spend that revenue on state services. Stapleton said he isn't automatically opposed to the idea, but believes the focus should be on finding a more global fix to the conflicting spending controls in the state constitution. Those include the Gallagher Amendment, which restricts residential property tax rates, and Amendment 23, which dictates spending levels for education:

"Tabor is the popular whipping post, but Gallagher and Amendment 23 have also created a Gordian Knot of automatic ratchets in the budget and we need to free ourselves of automatic ratchets and get more control over where we spend dollars and more results-oriented spending for our budget going forward in the future. But I'm not opposed reflexively to anything, other than I'm opposed to anything that doesn't give taxpayers a voice in where their money is being spent."

On his plans for his second term:

Stapleton said one of his main accomplishments in his first term was a 2012 law giving the treasurer's office more oversight of the bonds issued by state agencies. Among his goals for the next four years is to make information about that debt more transparent to the public:

"We're working on Colorado issuing its first ever comprehensive financial statement, just like a 10-Q that you'd look at from Microsoft or IBM, on a quarterly basis, so that all Coloradans can see, 'Okay, this state agency issued this debt with these terms.' The more transparent we can be about debt issuance in Colorado, I think the more fiscally responsible we can be as a state as well."

On managing Colorado's Unclaimed Property Division:

The Great Colorado Payback, run by the treasurer's office, is a state effort to reunite people and businesses with money they may have lost track of -- everything from gift cards and paychecks to safe deposit boxes and bank accounts:

We processed more claims last year than ever in Colorado history. We processed a million and a half claims... 15-percent of our claims are over $10,000. But the average is a few hundred dollars.

Treasurer Walker Stapleton will be sworn in for his second term on January 13th, along with Gov. John Hickenlooper and Colorado's new Secretary of State Wayne Williams, and Attorney General Cynthia Coffman. Colorado Matters will be talking to those two office holders in the coming weeks.