Two Republican businessmen square off in treasurer’s primary

By Ernest Luning
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Now that it’s officially a two-man race for the Republican nomination for state treasurer, candidates J.J. Ament and Walker Stapleton are both making the case that they’re the better candidate to take on Cary Kennedy, the incumbent Democrat.

Ament, who won top line at the state GOP assembly for the August 10 primary election, and Stapleton, who petitioned his way onto the ballot, appeared before the Political Organization of Women Republicans at an hour-long forum June 17 in Denver. Both candidates cast themselves as successful businessmen able to bring private-sector sense to the state treasurer’s office, and both argued Kennedy lacks the financial know-how required to manage the people’s money.

J.J. Ament

Absent from the debate — along with the third candidate Ali Hasan, who was knocked from the race at the state assembly — was any discussion of “bailout companies” and whether the state should invest in them. Until a month ago, that topic, a favorite of Hasan’s, had sometimes come to dominate discussions in the race, with Hasan pledging to avoid any companies that had any connection to taxpayer bailouts, and the other two candidates telling Hasan he didn’t understand finance.

Without that topic to bat about, Ament and Stapleton engaged in a spirited discussion of the treasurer’s role in state government with only a few solid distinctions emerging between the two.

“I have had a happy and successful life in the private sector but am deeply concerned about the direction Colorado is going in,” Stapleton said in his opening remarks. “I want to get in the fight for all of our collective tax dollars down at the state Capitol.”

Ament said his experience advising government entities on public financing will be an asset on the job.

“My clients were state treasurers,” Ament said in his opening statement. “I essentially did in the private sector exactly what state treasurers do.”

Walker Stapleton

Stapleton made the point numerous times that he is a businessman first and a politician only temporarily. That’s a bit of a dig at Ament — the son of longtime legislator and former state Agriculture Commissioner Don Ament — who has spent much of his adult life either working in politics, for civic organizations or in public finance.

However, Stapleton himself has a weighty political ancestry, too, counting Denver Mayor Ben Stapleton as a grandfather and former President George W. Bush as a cousin. His wedding four years ago took place at the Bush family compound in Maine while hundreds of anti-war demonstrators nearly engulfed the nuptials.

Asked to rank the top three activities of the state treasurer, the two mostly agreed in broad strokes, if not in detail.

“The treasurer is the state’s banker,” Ament began. “First and foremost, if the government writes a check, the treasurer makes sure it can be cashed.” Second, he said, the treasurer is the state’s “investment officer,” responsible for managing roughly $6 billion at any one time. He said the principles that should guide investment decisions are safety, then liquidity, and finally yield on investment. Third, he said it was the treasurer’s job to “be proactive in the Legislature,” by weighing in on financial issues. “Right now,” he added, “you cannot tell where Gov. Ritter’s office ends and the treasurer’s office begins.”

Stapleton put managing the state’s investments at the top of his list, saying the looming “hyperinflationary environment” makes it more important than ever to manage bonds carefully. Second most important, he said, is serving on the board of the state pension system — the Public Employees’ Retirement Association, or PERA — which he labeled “one of the top five worst pension funds in the entire United States.” He said it was the treasurer’s responsibility to “sound the alarm bell” on PERA. Finally, he said, the treasurer should be the “state’s spokesman on taxing and spending increases.” That’s why the state elects an independent treasurer, he said, adding that without that independent voice, the governor might as well appoint a treasurer and “save ourselves all the hassle and heartache” of electing one.”

Both candidates had some advice about helping the state balance the budget.

“It’s not about what you can cut,” Stapleton said, “it’s about restoring spending caps, especially in a hyperinflationary environment,” making his second reference of the night to worries inflation could spiral out of control.

Ament said the state is hamstringed by spending mandates, including requirements built into the state constitution and Medicaid outlays. “We have to remove mandates in spending and go back to prioritizing,” he said. Still, he cautioned, the treasurer can’t “correct what happens in the state legislature,” adding that there was no substitute for fiscal discipline. “Just because we have limits in spending doesn’t mean we should spend up to the limit each year, either.”

Turning attention to PERA, both candidates said the system was broken, but both have different solutions.

Ament said immediate fixes, like “tinkering with cost of living (adjustments), retirement age,” might be necessary but wouldn’t be enough.

“The first thing that needs to be done is to say, ‘Stop — enough is enough,’” Ament said. “If you’re in the system as a retiree or an employee, we’re going to honor those financial contracts.” But every new public employee would bypass PERA — which Ament labeled a “Ponzi scheme” — and pay into Social Security with an individual retirement account on the side, according to his proposal.

Stapleton would take a different approach.

“You have to change the system from a defined benefit to a defined contribution plan,” he declared. “This allows the pensioner to become a partner.” Anything short of that, he suggested, would just be “kicking the can further down the road,” as he claimed officials have been doing for years.

Asked to bash Kennedy, both candidates complied with relish. In response to a question from the POWR group to discuss her “biggest weakness,” Stapleton said the incumbent was a “great example of somebody who is serving as a lifetime bureaucrat.” He also blamed her for what he called the “massively corrosive” effects on the state budget of Amendment 23, a ballot measure authored by Kennedy and passed by voters that sets minimum state funding for K-12 education.

Ament hammered the bureaucrat point too, though he claimed having a treasurer who doesn’t understand public finance leaves her at the mercy of staff bureaucrats who are also resistant to change. Noting the treasurer only gets to appoint one or two members of the office’s 26-member staff, Ament warned against institutional inertia. “It’s not that they’re bad people,” he said, “but it’s not in the nature of a bureaucracy to innovate itself.”

Neither candidate shared the enthusiasm Hasan exhibited when he was in the primary race for a simple solution to the congested Interstate 70 corridor through the mountains. Asked whether there was any money — in a question perhaps formulated when Hasan was still a candidate — Ament said “things can be done,” including a possible “zipper” lane and traffic-flow management approaches, but said that in the end, “the reality is, the fix on I-70 is massively expensive.” It’s not even the most important transportation problem in the state, he said. “There are priorities that need to happen around the state that need to be addressed and are more easily addressed before we get a solution on I-70,” he said.

Stapleton was succinct: “Not right now we can’t, and anybody who tells you differently is not being honest with you.”

The Kennedy campaign responded to criticism from her Republican opponents in a recent statement: “The fact is, Cary Kennedy has posted solid gains in the public investment portfolio during one of the worst economic downturns in American history,” said spokesperson Tyler Chafee. “I’m sure there’s no shortage of people who want to look back and try to second guess things with various scenarios, but the fact is, she’s done a great job protecting and growing the public dollar.”

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com