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Will He Or Won’t He?

Lawmakers Expel Lebsock and PERA Compromise Debated. Big Talk Turns To Hickenlooper And His Aspirations For Higher Office

On March 2 Coloradans witnessed something they had not seen in 103 years. By a vote of 52-9 (with 4 absent), state Rep. Steve Lebsock was expelled from the Colorado House of Representatives. History has been repeated and the institution has been shaken.

In 1915 Rep. William Howlett was expelled from the Colorado House as a result of a committee investigation that determined he had committed perjury in the midst of a bribery investigation.

Howlett’s history, and more importantly the proceeding used to expel him, was a focus of the nearly eight hours of last month’s debate preceding the vote to expel Lebsock. I had the opportunity – I can’t call it a privilege – to listen to about two-and-a-half hours of the proceeding.

Members on both sides of the aisle initially requested additional time to review a lengthy and heavily redacted investigators’ report that they complained had been received late and did not allow for adequate time for full review. Others requested the vote be postponed and that an ethics committee pursuant to House Rule 49, similar to what was used in the Howlett matter, be convened to investigate, take testimony, and provide a recommendation to the House.

Ultimately all of those requests failed.

Lebsock out, what of the others?

Many legislators, on a bipartisan basis, spoke about the need to support the courageous victims who had the strength to come forward and voice their experiences about being sexually harassed by Lebsock. House members read letters penned by many of the victims. Rep. Faith Winter, one of his accusers, spoke forcefully and emotionally.

Many spoke of the need to insure that the state Capitol remain a place where women can work safely, excel in their careers and not be faced with the threats of sexual harassment.

Others expressed their concern about the process involved, which they and Lebsock contended deprived him of due process. The fact that the conclusions of the investigative team determined that it was “more likely than not” that the sexual harassment had occurred and that the witnesses bringing the accusations were “credible” left members concerned whether the standard was sufficiently stringent to warrant the rare step of expelling a member.

Others raised the point that as an elected official, Lebsock was ultimately accountable to his constituents and that his colleagues did not and should not have the authority to remove him from elected office. Rep. Lang Sias even made an argument about the propriety of the House expelling one of its own members by invoking the name Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Powell was a congressman who, in 1967 was excluded from his seat by the U.S. House of Representatives following allegations of corruption. He was ultimately reelected by his constituents and seated as a result of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

Given my time in the legislature I can only imagine how difficult it was for members to have to debate this issue and ultimately take a vote. I suspect that is why many of them asked Lebsock to resign rather than force the issue to a vote. I can also appreciate the concern of many legislators regarding the lack of a clear process. The legislature established policies regarding behavior at the outset of the session, but did not establish penalty provisions.

After a full day of debate, Lebsock was expelled. That expulsion now leaves open the question of what happens to three Republican senators who are similarly accused of sexual harassment by other legislators, lobbyists, and staff. With a little more than a month left in this year’s legislative session, Senate President Kevin Grantham has yet to indicate how he will proceed.

We have not seen the last of this issue. The relationships in and operations of the Colorado General Assembly will be impacted for years to come.

Whither PERA?

As we reported previously, the debate around the state’s retirement plan, PERA, has reached the floor in the form of Senate Bill 200.

Before we get to the bill, let’s clarify a few facts. PERA is not broken. PERA is not insolvent. On an actuarial basis, PERA has a shortfall. In other words, assuming no change in law or the economy, it is anticipated that PERA may not have enough money to pay all of the benefits owed to its members at the time they reach retirement age.

The bill, which is a compromise between Republicans and Democrats, proposes to raise the retirement age for future state employees to 65. It would also impose a longer time period of the average salary that determines maximum retirement benefits, increase employee contributions into the plan over time from eight percent to 11 percent, and cuts the retiree’s cost of living adjustment from a guaranteed 2 percent to 1.25 percent.

Critics note that another provision would increase employer contributions to PERA to 22.15 percent of current salaries – in essence more taxpayer money. The proposal also expands an existing 401(k) option for all PERA employees.

It is believed that these measures would eliminate the projected actuarial shortfall for PERA of between $32 to $50 billion in 26 or 27 years instead of the current 30 years. Other critics believe that no additional public dollars should be devoted to improving the solvency of the fund. Therein lies the rub: If no additional public dollars in the form of employer contributions are provided and there is concern about increasing the employee’s contributions, what remains are marginal adjustments to the operation of the program. This may ultimately help the program achieve solvency, but not within 26, 27 – or perhaps even 30 years.

And don’t dismiss the possibility of a lawsuit if someone challenges that the reductions in benefits are not an “actuarial necessity” under the law. We will be talking more about this in the months to come.

Eyes on the Oval Office

Park Hill may soon see the Secret Service and all the trappings of a presidential campaign if Gov. John Hickenlooper moves forward with his plans – plans of course that he has denied – and runs for president.

Colorado has had many presidential candidates, but with little to show for it. My friend and former longtime congresswoman Pat Schroeder was criticized for crying upon her withdrawal from the race in 1987. But, that willingness to wear her emotions on her sleeve was a quality that always endeared her to Denver voters – and she went on to serve 12 more years in Congress with great distinction.

Hickenlooper lives in Park Hill when he’s not in the Governor’s Mansion. His current plans and actions appear to more closely track the ill-fated campaign for president of former Gov. Bill Owens. You may recall that Owens did a national speaking tour and was featured on the cover of the National Review as “America’s Best Governor.” However, his political operation did not appear ready for prime time and his campaign efforts were steamrollered before they got well underway.

Former Gov. Richard Lamm also took a look at stepping up to the presidency but his actions never got beyond looking and thinking about the opportunity. Former Sen. Gary Hart was at one point a frontrunner for the Democratic nomination. His ambitions were laid to waste in 1988 as a result of a trip he took on a boat named Monkey Business.

This year, we will watch Hickenlooper’s continued meetings with political operatives and campaign funders. As well as his ongoing flirtation with Gov. John Kasich of Ohio. We should also keep an eye on former Sen. Ken Salazar and current Sen. Michael Bennet, who are said to be at least considering a run for the Oval Office.

When it’s all said and done, I personally think Hickenlooper’s most likely successful outcome is running for U.S. Senate and challenging Cory Gardner in 2020 rather than seeking the White House. It seems odd to be talking about the 2020 campaign this far out – but we now find that the political season starts earlier and never ends.

I hope leaping forward did not cause you too much difficulty. Happy Spring.

Penfield W. Tate III is an attorney with Kutak Rock and serves on a number of nonprofit boards. He represented Park Hill in the Colorado House of Representatives from 1997 to 2000, and in the State Senate from 2001 to February 2003, when he resigned from the Senate to run for Mayor of Denver. Penfield’s adult daughter was born and raised in Park Hill, and he and his wife Paulette remain in the neighborhood.

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