The PERA fiction on Amendment 66
It’s disappointing that Club 20, during its fall meeting this past weekend, chose to oppose a ballot measure aimed at raising money for Colorado’s schools, despite pleas from several of the club’s members that the Western Slope lobbying organization remain neutral on the issue.
But it’s downright embarrassing that Club 20 chose to base its opposition on the inaccurate claim that money raised by Amendment 66 through an increase in the state’s income tax could end up going to the Colorado Public Employees Retirement Fund — or PERA — instead being sent to schools.
That was the claim of one Club 20 member Friday, who urged the group not to support Amendment 66. And it was the basis of Club 20’s resolution against the amendment.
In making that argument, Club 20 is parroting a claim first raised by Colorado State Treasurer Walker Stapleton, who has made criticism of PERA his raison d’etre as state treasurer.
Last month, in joining forces with a group opposed to Amendment 66, Stapleton suggested that PERA could be a problem for Amendment 66 money. “With no safeguards in place to keep this money in the classroom, this is a bad investment for Colorado,” he said.
But, in fact, there are such safeguards in the amendment. The money to be raised by Amendment 66 will go into a new “state educational achievement fund” in the state treasury. Money from that fund can only be appropriated by the Colorado Legislature to benefit students in Colorado’s public K-12 schools and preschool programs.
Or, as the group pushing the ballot amendment states on its website, money that will be raised by Amendment 66, “is constitutionally and statutorily prohibited from ever being used directly to fund PERA.”
Some people make the “money is fungible” argument: Even if Amendment 66 money isn’t allowed to go directly to pay PERA commitments, they say, PERA will eventually become such a drain on school district budgets that schools will have to take more and more money from other tax-revenue sources to pay pensions for retired teachers and others.
That is a highly contentious argument, with which PERA officials strongly disagree. But even if it is correct, it doesn’t constitute an argument against Amendment 66. In fact, it makes the case for the ballot measure stronger: If PERA really is a threat to school district budgets in the future, then it makes sense to have a constitutional amendment in place that sets aside a significant amount of taxpayer money exclusively for educational use rather than pension payments.
There are other arguments being made by opponents of Amendment 66 that may ultimately resonate more strongly with voters, such as concerns about the size of the tax increase and the formula it establishes for income taxes.
But the PERA issue is a red herring. It’s unfortunate that Club 20 accepted that claim without first researching it.