At 10 a.m. on January 8, the sudden bang of a gavel striking its sounding block will pierce the morning air in Colorado’s State Capitol. This will happen twice—once in the green chambers of the House of Representatives and once in the Senate’s red chambers. As the lawmakers bring their conversations to a close and come to order, Colorado’s 2020 legislative session will be underway.
The gavel might as well be a checkered flag. Until early May, Colorado’s 100 lawmakers will discuss, debate, and eventually decide upon policies that will shape the future. Colorado has grown in size and complexity in nearly every measurable way since those Frontier days of 1876. But legislators today, as then, have only 120 days to keep state law in step with changes that occur on all 365. The result is a jam-packed, fast-paced schedule, filled with hundreds of bills that cover an array of subjects. On the most controversial topics, debate can last into the early morning.
Michael Steppat is Colorado PERA’s Public & Government Affairs Manager. He is tasked with navigating and deciphering the subtleties of the legislative process. He tracks legislation, maintains relationships with legislators, oversees lobbying, and more.
Below, he shares more about his role at PERA, the ways in which PERA governance is unique, issues related to oversight and transparency, and what to expect in the upcoming legislative session.
What’s your role at PERA?
I represent PERA at the Capitol. I monitor and report on legislative activity, builds and maintains relationships with legislators and other stakeholders, and oversee lobbying efforts. I also serve as the liaison for legislative committee staff.
Can you describe the similarities and differences between PERA and state agencies?
PERA is probably often viewed by the average citizen as a state agency. But it’s not. State law actually says “The association is an instrumentality of the state.”
I think one of the key differences is governance. We report to a Board of Trustees. State departments and agencies don’t. They have heads appointed by the governor. Also, PERA’s budget is not set by the legislature.
Despite those differences, there are also some similarities. For example, PERA still reports to the General Assembly through multiple oversight committees.
So PERA has a Board of Trustees, but state legislators also govern PERA. Can you explain the different responsibilities each group has?
The Board, which includes trustees elected directly by our members as well as trustees appointed by the governor, oversees the investment program and administration of benefits. They do not set contribution rates or benefit levels—only the legislature can. The Board appoints PERA’s Executive Director to implement its policies. PERA is also independently audited by a third-party through the Office of the State Auditor every year.
A few different committees at the State Capitol deal with PERA matters. What do these committees do, and why are there more than one?
Each committee has a different focus.
The Legislative Audit Committee goes through PERA’s annual financial and compliance audit. They ensure the financial statements are accurate.
The Joint Budget Committee (JBC) reviews budgetary and personnel matters. PERA’s annual report to the Joint Finance Committee is similar to the JBC.
The Joint Finance Committee reviews certain departments, including PERA, annually pursuant to the SMART Government Act. One of the intended goals is to get committees of reference more involved in the state budgeting process.
The Pension Review Commission has the responsibility to study and develop proposed legislation relating to FPPA and PERA, covering a number of subjects.
The Pension Review Subcommittee focuses on the financial health of the organization. Unlike the other committees, this committee includes members of the public, based on subject matter expertise.
Does PERA lobby elected officials? What does lobbying look like?
PERA does contract with lobbyists.
Lobbying is essentially advocacy of a point of view, however most don’t realize ninety percent of communication with lawmakers is education. Legislators come from varying walks of life. There are more than five hundred bills introduced every session on a variety of topics. Lobbyists are experts in their specific areas and help legislators understand the nuances of a subject.
It’s important that PERA is represented and can provide education to legislators, especially given legislator turnover at the State Capitol because of term limits.
Does PERA take positions on bills?
The Board may take positions on bills that directly impact PERA. Even if the Trustees don’t take a position, we may need to testify or provide information. We must ensure that the facts are out there so lawmakers can make informed decisions.
If PERA members want to know more about the legislative process or become more involved, where would they start?
PERA On The Issues is a good place to start. The General Assembly website is a great tool. The Colorado Channel on YouTube has live and archived video of the House and Senate floor. You can listen to committee meetings, view calendars, and review the status of a bill online. You can even sign up to testify at committee meetings. Colorado is a pretty transparent state.
Most importantly, legislators need to hear from constituents in their districts. That often ends up being influential.
Do you anticipate seeing any proposed legislation related to PERA this year?
We expect to see something dealing with Working After Retirement rules as well as changes to the types of jobs that are eligible to be on the Safety Officer table, which currently includes positions like State Troopers. Divestment issues are a possibility, too. PERA will also deliver a calculation concerning the funding of the Denver Public Schools trust fund.
It’s important to remember that PERA, or any other stakeholders, don’t introduce bills. Legislation is solely the responsibility of legislators.