GOP state Treasurer candidates talk money

Ament, Hasan & Stapleton tout expertise & ethics

By Leslie Jorgensen

COLORADO SPRINGS – GOP state Treasurer candidates J.J. Ament, Ali Hasan and Walker Stapleton pitched their portfolios of experience and expertise to entice Republicans to invest — caucus votes and contributions — in their campaigns.

GOP candidates for state Treasurer J.J. Ament, Ali Hasan and Walker Stapleton are seated between Fountain City Councilwoman Lois Landgraf and Colorado Federation of Republican Women President Jan Cummings.
Photo by Leslie Jorgensen/The Colorado Statesman

More than 50 folks attended the candidates’ forum and luncheon sponsored by the El Paso County Republican Women’s Club at the Valley Hi Municipal Golf Clubhouse. The attendees were invited to anonymously submit questions that Fountain City Councilwoman Lois Landgraf posed to the candidates.

The questions explored the candidates’ solutions to complex investment issues — and campaign ethics.

In response to a question about the candidates’ knowledge and expertise about Colorado state finances, Hasan said that he had gained insight into Colorado’s budget and finances during his unsuccessful campaign for House District 56 in 2008 against state House Majority Whip Christine Scanlan.

“I would have been dead in the water if I didn’t know that,” said Hasan, who garnered 47 percent of the vote in that race.

Walker contrasted his experience in private investments to incumbent Democratic state Treasurer Cary Kennedy, who was a policy analyst for former Gov. Roy Romer.

“(Kennedy) has been a rubber stamp for Gov. (Bill) Ritter’s policies for the past three years,” asserted Walker.

Despite the economic downturn since October 2007, Walker said that his investment policies in the private sectors have made money.

Ament cited his experience over the past decade as a financial and investment consultant to several state governments, including Colorado.

“I’ve seen the good, the bad, the ugly,” said Ament of his financial reviews of state budgets and investments.

He said that Colorado has a $19 billion budget that in some form or another passes through the Treasurer’s Office, which calls for expertise in government budgets and investments.

The candidates were asked to propose solutions to the red-inked Public Employees Retirement Association that covers state employees as well as several cities’ and school districts’ employees. The economic crisis has shrunk PERA’s investment portfolio. For example, net assets for the division for school employees sank to an estimated $16 billion in December 2009, from $23 billion in January 2008.

Walker said that the state Treasurer “needs to be a proactive voice on PERA’s board of directors.” He would like to change the composition of the board to eliminate members whose retirements are vested with PERA because it raises the question of objectivity.

“Each taxpayer in Colorado now faces a $15,500 liability because of PERA,” said Walker, who added that even Californians facing a lesser state pension liability though their economic challenges are greater than those in this state.

Ament said that the answer lies in freezing PERA’s existing pension plan and creating a separate plan to serve new employees.

“If you’re a PERA retiree, that is an obligation that we have made and we need to honor,” said Ament.

The state, however, he said, faces a $27 billion unfunded liability to fund PERA compared to the general fund of $9 billion to help finance such programs as state education, Medicaid and the Department of Corrections.

Ament suggested that the state freeze PERA and initiate a sustainable program for new state employees.

Hasan disagreed, “Over my dead body will PERA be bailed out by Colorado taxpayers!

“Don’t put anyone else on PERA,” said Hasan, who called for privatizing the entire system.

Hasan said that PERA needs to raise the age of retirement from 50 years old to 65, pay the benefits to current enrollments in the program and then, contract services to private sector companies which will pay benefits and retirement pensions.

Landgraf ventured into rocky territory when she read the question, “What would you do if you found out that your opponent was violating ethics by giving people money and asking them to give it back as a campaign donation?”

The candidates looked baffled; members of the audience giggled and whispered throughout the room.

“That is a campaign finance violation and it should be reported to the Secretary of State (Bernie Buescher),” declared Walker.

“It would be a risk that no candidate with integrity (running) for this office would want to be involved with,” he said, but added that if that had occurred, it would be a cause for “celebration” because the offending candidate would likely drop out of the race.

Ament said, “I’d just like say we’re not doing that — we’re working hard for every donation we receive.”

Hasan said that if a fellow candidate had violated campaign finance laws, it would be a matter between that individual and God.

“There are some punishments that God will take care of — not government. So I don’t feel it would be in my place to rat out a fellow Republican,” he explained.

“This question doesn’t need to be asked. You’ve got three good men running for this office — we’re not Democrats,” asserted Hasan.

The audience burst into laughter and applause.

Ament and Stapleton weren’t as generous to Hasan, whose 24-page campaign handout disparages their credentials as well as incumbent Democratic state Treasurer Cary Kennedy.

Hasan’s handout also asserts that Kennedy has invested nearly $3.5 billion of the state’s money in unstable financial institutions that received federal bailouts. Landgraf asked each of the candidates if Hasan’s statement is factual.

Hasan defended his documentation of the state’s investment portfolio.

“You can download the portfolio on my web site,” he said, citing that the state treasurer has invested in Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae, Citibank, Chase Bank and Bank of America.

“You know one of those unsolicited credit cards you get in the mail? It shows up and says that you can spend this. That’s what we’re invested in,” declared Hasan, pointing to a page of information downloaded from the state treasurer’s Web site.

Ament thought the question of investing in financial institutions that took bailouts was off the mark.

“Of course not!” he declared. “When I first heard that I thought, ‘Did the state treasurer’s portfolio change drastically since Bill Owens was treasurer? Or when Mike Coffman was treasurer?’ No, it hasn’t.”

Ament said the information on the state treasurer’s Web site is confusing, but hammered home that it’s important to elect a Republican, as himself, who is a conservative and has public finance experience and comprehends investment statements.

He said that former state Deputy Treasurer Dick Murphy, who served under Coffman, had scoffed at Hasan’s claim and said it was “absolutely false.”

In a statement, Murphy said, “Without any education or experience in finance or institutional investing, it’s easy to misunderstand the state’s portfolio. ‘Asset Backed Securities,’ for example, derive their value from underlying assets they represent — not the company that may have originally assembled them. They are not investments in bailout companies as Hasan claims.”

It should be noted that Murphy has endorsed Ament.

Walker called the assumption, “Portfolio Management 101.”

He said that the state’s portfolio of investments is diverse and makes money for Colorado even in this difficult economy. Walker believes Kennedy will take credit for earning income through the investment; however, he would like to tweak them.

The term “bailouts is a negative buzz word,” said Walker, adding that the government forced several financial institutions to take them whether or not they wanted the money. He also said that banking institutions, such as Wells Fargo, repaid the bailout funds, but the government is now pursuing more financial compensation.

Hasan countered with, “This romantic notion that the bailout companies — that TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) money was forced upon them — is a farce!”

All of the Republican candidates vowed to uphold the tenets of Colorado’s TABOR (The Taxpayer Bill of Rights) amendment. They criticized Ritter and the Democratic-controlled state House and Senate for violating TABOR by passing tax increases — approving fee increases and eliminating tax exemptions — during the legislative sessions last year and this year.

“Despite TABOR, Governor Ritter and Treasurer Cary Kennedy have aquired a billion dollars through taxes and fees,” declared Ament. “No Colorado constitutional amendment will take the place of solid, conservative leadership.”

Stapleton and Hasan agreed in principle with that assessment, as did the audience. The candidates stoked the need for voters to elect Republicans to take over both chambers of the state Legislature and the governorship.