Colorado’s state treasurer is well-known for his concern that the pension promises made to state employees are too magnanimous and will fall short, obligating the state’s general fund to make up the difference. That expecting a year-after-year 8 percent return in the investment marketplace is unrealistic, and when combined with current employee and state payroll contributions will not sustain the defined benefit plan’s payouts.
It is a situation that exists to different degrees in almost all states and is frequently in the news.
But Walker Stapleton, the great-grandson of Denver’s mayor whose name was attached to Denver’s previous close-in airport, has broader concerns about the state’s fiscal direction. He is pleased with a couple of recent accomplishments but is also quick to say that the Legislature is not spending the energy it should on fiscal issues. Fiscal issues are complex, and too frequently are viewed in too short a time frame, he says.
Stapleton, a Republican, has had a career in real-estate development and finance, and is articulate in his arguments.
On the plus side, Stapleton is complimentary of legislation that passed in a strong bipartisan fashion a year ago to require the coordination of the bonding – the certificates of participation, in the jargon – that state agencies offer to fund capital construction. That coordination, among public colleges and universities, or between colleges and another state agency, for example, strengthens the appeal of every offering to lending institutions and thus lowers costs. The ongoing tally also makes clear just how much debt, and what kind, has been created. That had not easily been known.
That legislation also provides an incentive for the governing boards and chief financial officers of state agencies to consider refinancing their organization’s debt to take advantage of lower interest rates, saving taxpayers money. Before, there was no incentive.
Beneficial fiscal legislation can result, he says.
Stapleton, like most other leaders in Colorado, decries the fiscal challenges that are a result of the Gallagher Amendment. Passed to protect against steeply rising residential property taxes, it has proved to be too severe, putting an unreasonable burden on commercial property.
Included in Walker’s concerns, of course, is school finance. Two thirds of the cost of pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade education is now borne by the state; it had been one-third. That is increasingly limiting what else the state can fund.
Recent Colorado governors of both parties – Roy Romer and Bill Owens come to mind – and Mike Coffman, who is in Congress, used the treasurer’s office to gain familiarity with the state and to create the exposure necessary to run for higher office. Some have said that the state treasurer’s responsibilities could be completed by 10 in the morning, leaving plenty of time to be involved in other career-building issues.
Stapleton does not appear to be on that track, at least not right now. He is unusually well-versed in the issues of public revenue and debt, enjoys talking about their nuances and long-term impacts, and has solutions in mind. His interest and abilities are an asset to the state.