Colorado Editorials: Stapleton’s plan for PERA is (a little) too extreme |

Colorado Editorials: Stapleton’s plan for PERA is (a little) too extreme

Stapleton’s plan for PERA is (a little) too extreme

State Treasurer Walker Stapleton unveiled his plan to fix Colorado’s pension system last week, and while it represents an important conservative voice in the debate, it strikes us as a bit too extreme.

So far, three major plans for fully funding Colorado’s troubled Public Employees’ Retirement Association system have been proposed and all focus needed attention on the annual cost-of-living raises regularly paid to retirees — through good times and bad. PERA’s board suggests reducing the retiree raises to 1.5 percent from the current 2 percent, Gov. John Hickenlooper argues for 1.25 percent, and now Stapleton, who also is running in the crowded Republican gubernatorial primary, is asking for there to be no more raises until the pension is fully funded.

Stapleton’s plan is ambitious, but likely too aggressive.

One of the greatest benefits of creating a collaborative multibillion-dollar investment fund to pay out retirement benefits is its ability to recover from losses — like the staggering 26 percent hit PERA took in 2008 — over very long periods of time. It’s unclear how long Stapleton’s plan would take to bring the pension into fully funded status, but it would likely be far less than the 30 to 40 years proposed by PERA’s board (assuming the stock market can provide an annual rate of return on investment of around 7.25 percent for the next three decades).

While other retirees suffered the immediate effects of the market crash, PERA retirees weathered the storm significantly unscathed, continuing to receive a 3.5 percent cost-of-living increase until 2010, when it was lowered to 2 percent annually as part of the Senate Bill 1 reforms.

According to an analysis conducted by the nonpartisan staff for the Joint Budget Committee, PERA estimates that, relative to actual inflation, retirees have been overpaid by the equivalent of about two years’ worth of raises. All of the plans on the table agree that at least a two-year timeout of the cost-of-living adjustment, coupled with some reduction of the guaranteed raise going forward, would be appropriate.

We support a middle ground between Stapleton’s plan of nothing until brighter days and Hickenlooper’s plan of reducing the COLA to 1.25 percent. A longer timeout coupled with a lower annual increase would be the most fair way to address a large chunk of PERA’s funding woes. Already future retirees are paying more for less of a retirement benefit and taxpayers have shouldered too much of the burden through payments to shore up PERA that were disguised as part of the employer contribution system.

An analysis of Hickenlooper’s plan and the plan from PERA’s board illustrated the plans leave retirees picking up 23 percent and 17 percent of the unfunded liability respectively. That’s not enough considering current retirees are recipients of many of the expensive benefits taxing the system.

Right now the pension fund is about $32 billion short of the money it would need to pay out future benefits in a sustainable way. Stapleton argues, and most credit rating agencies agree — using the principles of the Governmental Accounting Standards Advisory Council — that the unfunded liability is actually closer to $50 billion.

Hopefully PERA’s investments will perform as needed, but we think it’s likely there will be downturns of some magnitude in the next three decades, and it’s important PERA be in a better position financially when that economic downturn hits.

The Denver Post, Dec. 11

Supreme Court can’t define ‘art’ in Colorado cake shop case

The U.S. Supreme Court grappled recently with the definition of “art.” In doing so, justices highlighted the intractable dilemma of deciding Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission — a landmark case with major ramifications for civil rights.

Either decision may be a no-win, revealing a conflict the courts cannot resolve.

The case involves Colorado baker Jack Phillips, who considers wedding cakes a canvas for art. If his custom designs are not true art, the court might order him to produce expressions for any occasion a customer demands. If his custom designs rise to the level of art, the court must decide whether government can require artists to create messages they don’t like.

We cannot have merchants turning down common, nonartistic transactions on a basis of religious objections to the lifestyles or personal characteristics of customers. This would defy decades of hard-fought civil rights progress.

Conversely, we do not want government requiring artists to perform on demand. With compulsory art, some will have pacifist poets writing lyrics to celebrate war.

The conflict began when an administrative law judge and the Colorado Civil Rights Commission punished Phillips for declining to decorate a cake for a same-sex wedding. Phillips argues his art expresses personal emotions and beliefs. Same-sex marriages violate his religious convictions, so he cannot design heartfelt cakes for gay weddings.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked if the person who designs a wedding invitation is an “artist,” who should be allowed to discriminate on a basis of religious objections. Justice Elena Kagan asked about jewelers who make wedding rings, and the bride’s “makeup artist.” Justices were making points, not asking real questions, and did not wait for developed answers.

“The reason we’re asking these questions is because obviously we want some kind of distinction that will not undermine every civil rights law … including everybody who has been discriminated against in very basic things of life, food, design of furniture, homes, and buildings,” explained Justice Stephen Breyer.

The discussion conjures a famous opinion by Justice Potter Stewart, who could not define obscenity when explaining the ruling in 1964’s Jacobellis v. Ohio.

“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description (‘hard-core pornography’), and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it,” Stewart wrote.

To this day, society has never figured out how to draw the line between pornography and protected expression. Quite simply, the dilemma overpowers the wisdom and authority of the court.

Just as Stewart could not deliver a crisp distinction between pornography and protected expression, justices will not possibly deliver an opinion that distinguishes “art” from craft and other forms of expression.

What is art? We know art when we see it.

Phillips is part of a modern trend of cake artistry celebrated on the Cooking Channel, Food Network, TLC and WE with shows that include “Cake Hunters,” “Last Cake Standing,” “Cake Boss,” “Aces of Cakes,” “Amazing Wedding Cakes,” and more. Each cake is a boldly unique design that expresses an artist’s vision.

When Phillips designs a cake, he learns about the occasion and the people involved in it. If he feels inspired, he expresses himself with intricate designs. If not, he declines the contract. He has routinely declined custom designs for Halloween, bachelor parties and divorce celebrations. It is not the customers, it is the occasion that matters.

Phillips knows the difference between his art and his craft. He routinely creates and sells non-custom cookies, cupcakes and other goods to transgendered customers, and all others who come his way.

Again, what is art?

The market considers blasphemy a form of art. A crude painting of the Virgin Mary, speckled with elephant dung, sold at an art auction in London for $4.6 million in 2015. Racist songs that use the n-word and promote domestic violence are considered artistic expression. “Piss Christ,” a crucifix in the artist’s urine, won the “visual arts” category in a competition funded by the federal government’s National Endowment for the Arts in 1987.

The Supreme Court will decide whether governments can require artists to produce against their will. It won’t be easy. Try as they may, the country’s highest ranking jurists will not produce a useful definition of “art.”

Some human conflicts cannot be fixed at the courthouse. Consumers and merchants might have to work through this with mutual respect, cooperation, and a decision to get along and be good to each other.

The (Colorado Springs) Gazette, Dec. 10

Make a way for tiny houses around Colorado Springs, El Paso County

Recently, a La Veta woman was killed when the car she was driving along Interstate 25 near Walsenburg struck a dead deer. The impact was great enough to cause the car to swerve from the right lane into the median, rolling twice before coming to rest on its wheels.

Not only did 78-year-old Norma Heikes lose her life, the accident caused another car to wreck, which resulted in injuries to five people in the second car.

It’s a sad reality that accidents, even fatal accidents, are going to happen along the interstates. However, there are common sense steps that can be taken to reduce risk factors. One of these steps would be to put deer fences along all parts of the interstates that pass through Colorado.

No, the fences aren’t a perfect solution. Deer can and do sometimes jump over them. And it isn’t possible to fence off every road throughout the state.

Because of the higher posted speed limits, interstates are, at least in theory, attracting drivers who are traveling faster and therefore have less time to react when deer dart in front of them. Deer fences are a reasonable solution to reduce the chances of car vs. deer collisions.

The Pueblo Chieftain, Dec. 7

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