- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Daily Sentinel, June 24, on problems with the state’s pension system:

We don’t pretend to fully understand what it takes to operate a successful pension system, must less than one as big as the Colorado Public Employees Retirement Association.

That’s why we hire experts.

But when you have what we assume are smart people at PERA and in the state’s treasurer, Walker Stapleton, continue to be at odds over the $46.1 billion pension plan, we have to ask, what’s the financial truth here?

While PERA, primarily through executive director Gregory Smith, continues to tout the plan’s long-term sustainability, Stapleton continues to warn it’s in imminent danger of insolvency.

This week’s announcement that the pension saw a 1.5 percent rate of return in 2015 is case in point.

Smith said that’s not bad considering how volatile the markets are, adding that PERA did better than other state plans. Stapleton said it was dismal, and nowhere near the 7.5 percent rate the plan expects every year.

Smith said one can’t gauge a pension merely by looking at a single year’s return, while Stapleton said a poor showing adds to the plan’s long-term liability.

Smith says reforms the Colorado Legislature made in 2010, which, among other things, increased employer and employee payments into the plan, were adequate to ensure the pension’s future.

Stapleton said those reforms weren’t enough, calling on additional ones, such as eliminating automatic cost-of-living increases for retirees and increasing employee contributions on current state workers.

Stapleton also says those reforms assumed a 30-year amortization standard, while PERA said one higher is acceptable. (Currently, the pension’s amortization period is at about 44 years.)

So who’s right?

Stapleton certainly is knowledgeable about such things. He does hold degrees in the field, including one from Harvard Business School, and has worked as chief executive officer and chief financial officer of various companies.

Smith has worked at PERA since 2002, starting out as its general counsel and then later as chief operating officer.

Stapleton accused Smith of playing loose with the numbers, but he doesn’t support his arguments well when he plays with figures over Smith’s recent pay increase, saying he makes $900,000. In truth, his annual salary is about $394,000. While his new contract allows him to make much more, that’s solely at the discretion of the PERA Board of Trustees, and then only if the plan meets certain performance goals.

Point is, their rhetoric seems to have gotten personal, and this is too big a deal to let the discussion stoop to that level. On Thursday, Stapleton even called on Smith to debate him over the pension on a conservative radio station in Denver.

This isn’t a political campaign. This is a serious issue. We call on both to be the adults in the room and come up with an adult solution. The 547,000 PERA retirees and active state workers in Colorado deserve that.

Editorial: http://bit.ly/291d2GZ

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The Loveland Reporter-Herald, June 25, on teen marijuana use in Colorado:

When voters considered whether marijuana should be legalized for recreational use in the state of Colorado, one of the biggest fears expressed by opponents was that it would increase the use of marijuana by teens.

A new, large-scale study on the issue appears to show that those fears are unfounded.

The 2015 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, taken by 17,000 high school students in Colorado, showed that 21 percent of students admitted to using marijuana in the past 30 days. That compares to a national average of about 23 percent - even in the many states where marijuana is illegal and shouldn’t be so readily available. It also was similar to the results found in 2013, when marijuana was still illegal for recreational use in Colorado.

Does that mean there aren’t concerns with teen marijuana use in Colorado? Of course not. Science tells us that use of the drug by those with developing brains are at high risk for exacerbation of mental health problems and negative developmental effects. Public awareness campaigns for students are still highly appropriate.

Critics of the study have attacked the methodology of Colorado’s survey: the questions were given in the state’s high schools and junior highs, and students were allowed to opt out of the survey if they wanted. Critics worry that students who are using marijuana would be more likely to opt out of the survey - if they were even in school to begin with. They point to the link between dropping out of school with marijuana use and believe the numbers undercount true use.

However, the problem with that reasoning is that the same conditions about dropouts and self-selection existed in 2013, and they also exist nationwide. If such variables are affecting results, they are affecting all surveys and have for years.

As Colorado, and now Washington and Oregon, continue on the experiment of ending the prohibition on marijuana, such studies as the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey will be key to considering the health policy ramifications. In addition, the financial policies surrounding the industry will need to be monitored to make sure communities are not being made less safe than they were when all marijuana transactions were on the black market.

Editorial: http://bit.ly/29aCYER

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The Greeley Tribune, June 22, on the performance of Colorado’s online academies:

Last week the Aurora school district voted to close the five HOPE Online Academy learning centers located within its boundaries. We hope they stay closed.

There are 30 HOPE centers across the state, including one in extreme northern Greeley - so far north, in fact, it’s officially in the Eaton school district.

We understand charter schools, online academies, parent choice, public schools and school vouchers all are hot-button issues. We understand why, as the issues can get quite complicated.

We also understand the current state board of education is composed primarily of pro-charter school members. HOPE Academy is appealing the decision of the Aurora school district and the state board is expected to weigh in on the side of HOPE.

We’d understand why the state board would continue to defend a legitimate, proven, high-performing online academy. Or charter school. Or any school for that matter.

What we don’t understand is why the state board would continue to defend an optional school that for five straight years has been cited for poor performance. HOPE has found itself on the Colorado Department of Education’s accountability clock for each of the past five school years and could be facing sanctions and penalties from the same governing body that seems to be protecting it.

The Eaton school board has approached the state twice with attempts to close the local HOPE center. Twice, Eaton has been rejected.

Eaton Superintendent Randy Miller is, in a nutshell, over it.

“Until the state board changes, I’ve got better things to do,” Miller said.

He makes a good point. If the state school board is going to continue to defend and support all alternative schools regardless of their effectiveness, fighting the good fight turns quickly into a waste of resources.

We consider ourselves lucky here in Greeley. We have a host of public schools that seem to put forth a genuine effort every year to improve. We have another host of charter schools that offer different styles of quality education for our children.

On top of that, a number of online academies are available and parents are welcome to home-school their children, as well.

So it raises the question, why would the state board continue to support and defend the Hope Online Academy that isn’t doing a very good job of educating?

Yes, some public schools have been cited for poor performance for those same five years. We certainly think those schools should receive some special attention until they can work their way up and out of the doldrums.

But when one of the alternatives is performing poorly for such a long stretch of time, and when there are a number of different options available to each student, we have to scratch our heads and wonder why such unyielding support would continue to flow from the state board.

Editorial: http://bit.ly/291HIYj

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The Daily Camera, June 25, on efforts in Colorado to combat the Zika virus:

Colorado is not exactly Ground Zero for the mosquito-borne Zika virus, but it is home to one of the main research efforts to combat the bug, which can be sexually transmitted and is especially dangerous to pregnant women.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention office in Fort Collins is heading up U.S. efforts to keep the disease from spreading. Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet has been pressing to fund that CDC research all year, first joining 45 other senators to urge the Obama administration to act, then trying to persuade congressional Republicans to provide the full $1.9 billion the administration requested to fight Zika.

Alas, House Republicans passed a partisan $1.1 billion bill before skedaddling a week early for July 4. It has little chance of passing the Senate and no chance of being signed by President Obama, sending Bennet back to square one, even as the virus spreads.

“The Zika virus is a serious public health threat that has families in Colorado and around the country worried, particularly during the summer months when mosquitoes are most prevalent,” Bennet said Friday. “The so-called agreement unveiled (Thursday) fails to recognize the emergency we have on our hands. This is not the time for politics. Congress needs to pass a bill quickly to fund research to fight the spread of this disease.”

Mosquitoes carrying Zika tend to be found in wetter, more southerly climates than Colorado, but that doesn’t exempt traveling Coloradans from contracting the disease. It happened to former Denver City Councilwoman Susan Shepherd on a recent family vacation to Playa del Carmen, Mexico. Although some people who contract Zika show few symptoms, Shepherd, who reported a rash and severe joint pain, required hospitalization, KUSA-TV reported.

A number of athletes, including golfer Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland, have pulled out of the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro citing Zika concerns. “Today” show anchor Savannah Guthrie is pregnant and announced she won’t go to Rio to participate in NBC’s Olympics coverage because of the health risk.

The original House bill offered $622 million, or about one-third of the amount requested by public health officials. After taking considerable criticism, House Republicans approved $1.1 billion late last week, but took most of it from other programs, including money devoted to combating the Ebola virus and funds appropriated to set up exchanges under the Affordable Care Act.

The House also prohibited any of the funding from going to Planned Parenthood for birth control services, even though unplanned pregnancies in women exposed to the Zika virus are one of the disease’s major risks. The babies of such women are at risk of microcephaly, an abnormal smallness of the head associated with incomplete brain development.

Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy took time out from his gun control crusade last week to express his frustration with the Zika gamesmanship. “Cases of Zika are on the rise and those numbers will only go up,” Murphy tweeted. “We need to stop playing games and fund this urgent public health crisis.”

Bennet has been an advocate for the CDC’s Division for Vector-Borne Diseases in Fort Collins since 2010. There is no reason for this to be a partisan issue and there is no time to lose in funding the research to find a vaccine. We hope Bennet’s reputation for bipartisanship will help him bridge this divide and get emergency Zika funding approved - without the partisan strings.

Editorial: http://bit.ly/28Wh4iY

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