The Denver Post Guest Commentary
The Denver Post; January 19, 2018 By Earl Wright
Like so many in Colorado’s investment community, I was shocked by the sudden death of Greg Smith. As executive director of Colorado’s Public Employee Retirement Association, Smith oversaw one of the state’s most important financial institutions.
But Smith was an institution himself: a wise manager, a staunch advocate for state and local employees, a tough and principled negotiator, a true public servant. He was respected — and loved — for a reason.
Nothing compares to the loss Smith’s wife and sons, extended family, friends and colleagues have suffered. But in a different way, the state’s financial and public policy professionals have also experienced a major loss. Smith was a critical leader in one of the toughest issues we face — an issue that state lawmakers and Gov. John Hickenlooper will tackle in the 2018 legislative session.
Last year, Smith warned that Colorado’s public pension system faces a $32 billion shortfall. Despite a series of successful reforms in 2010, more changes are needed to ensure PERA’s long-term viability. Failure to act would put public employees, taxpayers and local economies at risk, he warned.
Most importantly, Smith urged state leaders to negotiate and pass the needed reforms this year. “The longer you wait, the more pain there is,” he told The Denver Post in September. “Every year makes a difference.”
For those who care about the future of PERA, this clear and profound statement prompts two immediate questions. First, how do we finish the work Smith started? And second, where do we find a trusted and effective leader who can take on this challenge?
PERA’s leaders have performed responsibly so far, appointing an interim executive director, forming a search committee, and continuing to stress the need for reforms this year. But it will be very hard to find a new executive director who can effectively jump into the middle of a major legislative negotiation on their first day, assuming the search is even finished before the session ends.
Therefore, we need to find another way forward, or we could lose the opportunity to fix PERA under an outgoing governor and a legislature evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. If there’s a time to pass PERA reforms that are fundamentally fair to everyone, that time is now. I don’t believe it was an accident when Smith chose 2018 as the year to get this done.
Smith was fiercely loyal to his members — I experienced that vividly in my own conversations with him. But he also knew well the shifting financial realities of the world.
In his final months, Smith led an important statewide conversation about how to reform the retirement system he served so well. Whether you agree or disagree with PERA’s negotiating position, the negotiations must continue and lead to action.
Therefore, I encourage PERA leaders to think creatively about how to maintain the momentum for reform.
Here’s one idea: Appoint a highly regarded figure to represent PERA in these negotiations. Someone who commands the respect of legislators and will keep everyone focused until a solution is found, just as Smith would have done.
Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne would be an excellent choice, as would former Govs. Bill Owens and Dick Lamm. Dan Ritchie, former chancellor of the University of Denver, would also be a strong candidate.
I could list more names, but in general, someone with stature, experience and rare leadership talent is needed. They must understand the urgency of the moment and the narrow window of opportunity to find a solution that’s fair to all. And we need someone who will make these negotiations their sole mission over the next few months.
This is just one idea, of course. But whatever happens next, we must not lose our resolve to find a fair and effective solution to the PERA challenge this year. It’s in the best interests of Colorado and would be a fitting tribute to Greg Smith.