13 April 2009

Colorado's Pinnacol Plan

The fight for control of $500 million of assets from Pinnacol Assurance is slowly but surely being framed as a partisan issue (see here and here), when in fact it is not so clearly partisan at all. For those not up on the debate: Can Colorado lawmakers dip into Pinnacol's $700 million surplus to support state universities, colleges, and community colleges this budget year? A pair of proposals to that effect have passed the state senate. In response, Pinnacol has lawyered (and PRed) up and is prepared to fight.

At issue is the confusing, public-private nature of Pinnacol Assurance. Channel 7 News has some good background here. The state of Colorado established the fund in 1915 to cover worker's compensation claims expected as a result of the state's passage of the Workers' Compensation Act. Pinnacol was seen as the "insurer of last resort" so that the state would not be saddled with the costs of workers' comp claims. Though Pinnacol's funds are privately owned, the Pinnacol board is appointed by the state and the company enjoys tax-exempt status. A group of lawmakers tasked with balancing the Colorado higher-ed budget sees Pinnacol assets as part of a pool of resources to be drawn into play.

Pinnacol has become the largest work-comp insurance agency in the state. The company argues compellingly that their surplus comes not from the state but from private employers, some 58,000 strong. Thus Pinnacol's funds very much represent private dollars and not state funds, no matter the state-sponsored nature of the firm nor the tax exemptions Pinnacol enjoys as a quasi-governmental institution.

Confused yet? There's more.

If we look at the bills actually submitted, Senate Bills 281 and 273, we'll see that the plans are sponsored by Democrat Brandon Shaffer and Republicans Al White and Don Marostica. The Colorado Independent has a rundown of some of the Republican in-fighting of recent days. While White and Marostica have angered their Republican colleagues, the Colorado Dems have also failed to present a united front on this issue. Sen. Dan Gibbs (Summit Co.) and Sen. Paula Sandoval (Denver) voted against their party.

Meanwhile, Attorney General John Suthers (R) has declared the proposed legislation unconstitutional, though it appears unlikely that Suthers will have the final word on the matter. (Some interesting legal insights here.) Also, former Republican governor Bill Owens came out with a strongly worded op-ed last week exhorting Governor Bill Ritter to veto any legislation that results from the current plan. It's worth pointing out that Ritter has remained cautious on the issue since before Owens spoke up and before Josh Penry framed the Pinnacol issue as a wedge in the race for governor's seat.

While Colorado Republicans attempt to paint the issue as a state seizure of private monies, it is also Colorado Republicans who, when faced with the budget shortfall, hit upon Pinnacol's assets as the answer. Skeptics argue that whatever the outcome of today's Senate vote, A) the funds will only tide the higher-ed budget over for a year, and B) lawsuits may tie the funds up for at least that long anyhow, thus rendering the legislation ineffective in the immediate term.

Whatever happens, watch for more of the same politicization to occur as Josh Penry continues to position for a run at the governor's office in 2010.