DENVER – The two major party candidates in the race for Colorado treasurer have an eye for numbers. But how they crunch the equations often leads to different answers.
Democrat Betsy Markey, a former representative for the 4th Congressional District, and incumbent Walker Stapleton, a Republican, both grew up in families where dollars and cents were an important way of life.
Also running is Libertarian candidate David Jurist.
Markey grew up in an environment where women dominated the numbers game. One of seven children, Markey says her mom was inspirational.
She held positions in the U.S. Treasury Department, including as a budget analyst. She also served two years in Congress.
“My mother was really a financial whiz.” Markey said. “She was always the president of the neighborhood stock club, which she started with women, so all of my three sisters, my mom encouraged us girls, we had to go a little further and work a little harder.”
Stapleton’s family is also no stranger to numbers and public policy. He and former President George W. Bush share the same great-grandfather, George Herbert Walker. His paternal great-grandfather is former Denver Mayor Benjamin Stapleton, who served from 1923-1931 and again from 1935-1947. Craig Roberts Stapleton, the candidate’s father, is a former United States ambassador to France and the Czech Republic.
Stapleton has been floated as a GOP nominee for governor in 2018. But if former U.S. Rep. Bob Beauprez, a Republican, wins the governor’s race this year, it is unlikely Stapleton would challenge him.
“I think public service has definitely been ingrained in me since an early age, and I’ve had Republicans and Democrats in my family,” Stapleton said. “I love Democrats. I have plenty of them in the family.”
As the custodian of the public’s funds, by nature the role of the treasurer is nonpartisan. But that doesn’t mean politics can’t seep in.
Stapleton has found himself at odds with the state employees’ union and those who manage retirement benefits.
He filed a lawsuit seeking to open the books of the Public Employees’ Retirement Association fund, and he has repeatedly fought to lower the projected rate of return on investments. He has also advocated for lowering cost-of-living raises and increasing the retirement age.
Stapleton also was a leading Republican voice to oppose a ballot initiative last year that would have raised taxes by nearly $1 billion for K-12 education.
Retirement fund stability
Politics aside, PERA reform is one of the most significant issues facing the treasurer’s office. The state faces at least $23 billion in unfunded pension responsibilities.
Markey is not overly concerned, pointing out that legislative steps have been taken to put PERA on a sustainable path. She said the PERA board voted to lower the anticipated rate of return from 8 to 7.5 percent.
“When you’re looking into the future, the PERA board itself expects to close that unfunded liability gap within the next 30 years,” Markey said. “And they don’t expect that there will be a time in the next 30 years where they will ever not be able to fully meet their obligations to retirees.”
Stapleton said Markey’s position suggests an “alarming lack of knowledge for public-finance issues.
“PERA’s liability has only grown since I’ve been in office.” Stapleton said.
He added: “She said that PERA was fine, and I’m obsessed with it. ... But she would also lower the rate of return for PERA? You can’t be for lowering the rate of return and not for additional work to be done.”
Funding issues in Colorado are complicated by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, or TABOR. The law requires a vote of the people to raise taxes; it also requires automatic refunds. When tied to other constitutional spending mandates and formulas, including for education and property taxes, the laws become a knot.
But Stapleton does not place all the blame on TABOR. He believes TABOR reform should be addressed through examining all spending formulas and requirements.
“TABOR has been the popular whipping post for excuses at the state government level as to why the budget is broken in Colorado,” Stapleton said.
Markey believes people should have the right to vote on tax issues. But she worries that constitutional mandates limit flexibility.
“We don’t have the flexibility in our state budget to meet all of our fiscal challenges,” Markey said. “... The treasurer needs to play a role in that, working closely with every member of the state Legislature.”
Markey has made accessibility a key issue in the campaign, suggesting that Stapleton has not made himself available to taxpayers and elected officials, especially on the Joint Budget Committee, the legislative committee tasked with developing the annual state budget.
“You have to be fully engaged before you can offer up solutions, or before you can criticize the program, and he is not engaged,” Markey said.
She added that she plans to provide her cellphone number to all elected officials in the Legislature.
Stapleton, however, said Markey is misinformed. He said he has excellent working relationships with many state lawmakers, including some high-profile Democrats. Stapleton’s close friendship with Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, is no political secret.
“A lot more people would be receptive to my cellphone number than hers at the Capitol,” Stapleton quipped.
“I think I have built up credibility from across the aisle in the way that I have conducted myself over the last four years as treasurer,” he continued. “Everybody at the Capitol ... knows where to reach me.”