Two Democrats have announced campaigns for state treasurer, paving the way for a primary to challenge incumbent Republican Treasurer Walker Stapleton in 2014.
Former Congresswoman Betsy Markey of Fort Collins and Broomfield Mayor Pat Quinn announced on Monday that they would seek the Democratic Party’s nomination.
Markey, who served only two years in Congress for Congressional District 4 before U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Yuma, defeated her, was joined at the state Capitol by a throng of Democratic supporters. Her high-profile endorsements include U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette of Denver, former treasurer and current Denver Deputy Mayor Cary Kennedy, former Lt. Gov. Gail Schoettler and state Sen. Andy Kerr of Lakewood.
Markey said following the rally that she is excited about the opportunity because it gives her a chance to continue to serve the people of Colorado, while drawing upon her experience as a businesswoman. She co-founded a software firm in the 1980s and in the mid-1990s she owned a coffee and ice cream shop in Fort Collins.
“I’ve always been interested and involved in fiscal issues, both as an owner of two small businesses before I entered public service, and when I was in Congress I focused on budget reform, on economic development,” Markey told The Colorado Statesman. “So, I think it’s a natural progression for me, and keeps me in the great state of Colorado.”
Markey was a member of the fiscally conservative Democratic Blue Dog Coalition when she was in Congress, which she says is evidence that she will serve as a moderate treasurer.
“We really worked within our own party to make sure that bills that were coming up on the floor, we knew how to pay for them, that we weren’t going to add to the deficit, and as a coalition we fought for increased transparency and more fiscal responsibility and discipline in the budget,” explained Markey.
“The treasurer’s office is responsible for all of our investments and people should know exactly how and where their tax dollars are spent,” she continued. “That’s something that I will work hard for, to make sure that we are conservative and disciplined in our investments.”
The treasurer’s toughest challenge is balancing the state’s investments in the Public Employees’ Retirement Association, or PERA. The system is said to have as much as $23 billion in unfunded liabilities.
Stapleton has found himself at odds with various stakeholders over his conservative approach to sustaining the retirement system’s obligations. He has gone up against public employees, including teachers, suggesting that part of the problem is that by 2018, 20.15 percent of the budget for teacher salaries will be directed to PERA.
The current assumption rate is 8 percent of return. But the four-year average rate of return is said to be around 12 percent. Public employees and Democrats have told Stapleton that he is over-reaching, pointing out that even coming out of a recession, the system is beating expectations.
Markey says she is up to the challenge, pointing out that she does not want to rush to action. She said she would first want to look at state legislation from 2010, which required an increase in the employer and employee contribution rates to PERA, as well as a limit on the annual cost of living increase. She does not support privatizing the program, as Republicans have suggested, which has turned the issue into a political football.
“It is a big issue and it’s one that does need full discussion,” opined Markey. “I know the state legislature in 2010 passed PERA reforms, they were important steps. Let’s take a look at how those are working. Is there additional legislation down the road that may be needed? That’s quite possible.
“Let’s keep that discussion going,” Markey continued. “But let’s not use PERA, let’s certainly not use state resources, to turn it into a partisan political issue… I think all taxpayers need to know exactly what their finances look like in the long term for PERA.”
Her primary challenger, Quinn, is not very comfortable with the 8percent assumption rate. He says his background as a chief financial officer helps him to understand such a complicated issue.
“We need to face the reality that the 8 percent may be too high,” said Quinn.
He said much of the problem has to do with conflicting constitutional amendments, including the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, Gallagher and Amendment 23, which essentially require spending, while also curbing expenditures and revenues collected.
“It goes into a far bigger issue,” explained Quinn. “If you take our state constitution — Gallagher, TABOR and Amendment 23 — and you combine it with a declining sales and income tax as our population ages, I guess my whole goal is to take my business, treasurer, CFO background and work with the various stakeholders, which includes both sides of the aisle, to start shining a light on the issues we have and trying to come together on constitutional reform and finance reform for the state of Colorado.”
Quinn says he departs from Staple-ton in the sense that he believes government plays an important role. Quinn also believes the treasurer’s office has become too politicized.
“I’m going to take an approach on a bipartisan basis, I think [Stapleton] has taken a kind of partisan approach and that’s limited his ability to get the job done,” opined Quinn.
“Right now both parties are so polarized at the state level… I’m a Democrat, I believe there’s a role for government,” he continued. “But I think government has to be efficient, it has to be effective, and we have to be smart with the taxpayers’ money every step of the way.”
Quinn acknowledges that he has an uphill battle against Markey. The Democratic Party has already united behind her. In fact, several high-profile Democrats were shocked to learn that Quinn announced his intentions to run. They were hoping to unite behind one candidate.
Quinn said he is not currently seeking endorsements, but that he has received encouragement to run.
“I was an underdog when I ran for mayor and I’m an underdog now,” he said. “It just makes me get up earlier in the morning.”
GOP rallies behind Stapleton
Meanwhile, the state Republican Party has rallied behind Stapleton. On June 21, the Friday before Markey and Quinn announced, the party released a lighthearted Web video highlighting Stapleton’s “financial prowess.” Called “Walker Stapleton, Financial Genius,” the video plays off the classic Bud Light “Real Men of Genius” ads. The “financial genius” quote came from a recent Colorado Springs Gazette editorial that praised the treasurer for opposing the tax increase and education finance bill supported by Democrats and Gov. John Hickenlooper. The bill came with a $1.12 billion price tag. Voters this November will likely be asked to approve a $950 million tax proposal, requiring the legislature to make up the shortfall.
“The Web video is a fun way to bring attention to the great work that Treasurer Stapleton is doing for the people of Colorado,” explained state GOP Chairman Ryan Call.
Stapleton proposed including PERA reform in the school finance legislation, but that proposal never took shape.
“We are fortunate to have Walker Stapleton fighting for the citizens of this state and our best interests,” said Call.
The Republican chairman also attacked Markey and Quinn as “two radical Democrats,” suggesting that the primary will be a vicious one.
“It looks like this is going to be a liberal establishment versus the Democrat grassroots kind of primary,” remarked Call. “But regardless of who wins the primary, any Democrat is going to have a tough time taking on Treasurer Stapleton, who has a strong record of fighting for the people of Colorado.”
Stapleton was out of the country this week and unable to return a request for comment from The Colorado Statesman.