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Putting PERA on solid ground

Judging from the number of calls and e-mails received, the past week has stirred up lots of interest from people in my district. I’ll summarize a couple of the bills and where I ended up voting on them.

Probably the most significant bill I voted on, in term of long-term and fiscal impacts, was the proposal for dealing with the state pension plan. Senate Bill 1 proposes a way to close the gap between the future assets and liabilities of the pension fund known as PERA. SB 1 had already been through the Senate and arrived in the House Finance Committee this past week. We’d already been briefed by the PERA management on the proposal since returning for the 2010 session, so I’d heard many of the details before the bill got to us.

Everyone acknowledges that the pension fund will go broke, if left unattended. This obviously has drastic consequences to the retirement benefits for current and future state retirees. Southwest Colorado has a lot of retirees generally and a number of them are PERA members, so I knew it was important to attend the two PERA membership meetings in Durango this fall. There, PERA management came to solicit input from PERA members about which direction to head in to deal with the shortfall facing the fund.

At the late August meeting, people agreed that action needed to be taken, but none knew the full range of options or how serious the problem might be. By the time of the October meeting, the PERA board had assessed the landscape and was proposing a solution that none would like, but they felt would fairly meet the goal of having sufficient assets in a 30-year window of time to meet future obligations.

Clearly, SB 1 isn’t perfect and does have something for everyone to dislike. But, it’s a solid proposal that meets the goal and doesn’t place the burden of increased payments into the fund solely on the backs of current and future state employees. That’s important if we are to be able to continue to keep and attract high-caliber teachers and state employees. I voted for the proposal in the Finance Committee as well as on the House floor. We’ve got to get PERA on solid footing and, as the daughter of a longtime public school teacher, I know how important those retirement benefits were to my parents once my dad retired.

Another bill that created a lot of interest in the district is the rafting bill, House Bill 1188. This bill proposes to strike a new balance between the commercial rafting industry and private landowners along the river banks. The impetus for the bill is a battle that has erupted on the Taylor River, near Gunnison, where a landowner has shut down local rafting companies by putting a low bridge in the way of safe passage.

River running is a favorite activity for my family and me. My kids grew up with lots of time spent camping along various rivers, knowing that each day of a river trip means adventure, hard work, and a chance to appreciate all that a river and its ecosystem has to offer. We’ve also always been aware of and respected the rights of private property owners as we head downriver.

After hearing from constituents and following the legislators’ debate about the bill, looking at court cases and the history of Colorado river usage, and carefully considering the wording, I can’t support it, in its current form.

In particular, I don’t agree with separating the rights of the boaters into two categories, commercial and non-commercial. I also feel the expansion of the right to use the river to compel landowners to accommodate those who want to portage on riverfront property was not defined sufficiently to give adequate protection to landowners. Well intentioned, but the bill needs some amendments.