Colorado treasurers race may be best pickup for inflation-minded GOP

Talk to anyone running for office about why they feel confident they’ll win, and their answer will likely include that they’re a strong candidate facing a vulnerable opponent in a favorable environment.

Colorado Republicans feel that way about the state treasurer’s race this year, too. But they’re banking on a combination of softer factors to push Lang Sias, a former state representative and Walker Stapleton’s running mate in 2018, over incumbent Dave Young. One is a tendency by Colorado voters to drift conservative as they move down the ticket. The other, several Democratic and Republican insiders told The Denver Post, is a natural — if somewhat simplistic — association of the office with fiscal policy. In a year when Republicans are hammering at rising inflation costs, that perception, coupled with broader voting tendencies, could make the treasurer’s office particularly winnable for the GOP.

Democrats are less convinced, and Colorado isn’t as purple as it used to be. Young has been trying to address the information gap, said Morgan Carroll, the chairwoman of the state Democratic Party: He’s worked to stress the importance of the race — and of the treasurer’s role in people’s everyday lives — to voters across the state.

“A lot of people don’t know about it,” she said.

The treasurer doesn’t set Colorado’s budget. The office doesn’t raise or lower taxes, and its holder has no control over interest rates or other specific monetary policies. The treasurer oversees the state’s investments and bank accounts. He or she sits on the board of PERA, the state’s public pension plan, and the treasurer is often tasked with implementing policies approved by the legislature.

But when people think treasury, they think fiscal policy, said Michael Fields, senior adviser to the conservative group Advance Colorado Action.

“I think part of it is the treasurer has to do with money and fiscal matters, and Colorado tends to lean fiscally conservative,” he said. “So that person has a platform to talk about taxes, spending, investments, stuff like that.”

So, that theory goes, with inflation so prominent, Colorado voters would want a conservative as the avatar of fiscal policy here, even if that’s just as a communicator.

That’s part of Sias’s pitch, too, he said in an interview with The Post: He wants to use his office as a “bully pulpit” to trumpet the economic impact of proposed policies. He also said he wanted to restore balance to state government, and he pledged to address the billions in PERA’s unfunded liability, which he said was key to attracting employers to Colorado.

He agreed that his race represented a potential win because of its association with fiscal policy and down-ballot bipartisanship. But Sias acknowledged there was only so much the office could do unilaterally to address economic issues — like inflation — directly. PERA, he said, is something the office can directly impact.

Asked if Sias represented the GOP’s best chance at winning a statewide contest this year, Carroll was unimpressed and said that had more to do with the strength of Republican candidates than on Sias’s particular appeal.

“That isn’t saying much,” she said

The race will be close, she continued, but she said that Young has been working hard, raising money and trying to bridge the key information gap — what exactly does the treasurer do? — with voters. Down-ticket races have been tough for Democrats in Colorado this century: Across the five statewide elections from 1998 through 2014, the Democrats won the governor’s mansion three times but lost nearly every down-ballot race each time. And 2018 represented a large shift there: Democrats won the governor’s race again, alongside the attorney general, secretary of state and treasurer.

In an interview with the Post, Young — who in his past life as a legislator had helped set the state budget as a member of the Joint Budget Committee — said he had a “record of success” over the past four years. He mentioned the CLIMBER program — a small-business loan effort — and the SecureSavings program — a state-sponsored retirement plan — as particular successes.

Carroll warned that Sias could intentionally derail those programs, which were both created by the legislature. Sias said he would run them as “enthusiastically” as possible but that the treasurer needed to be clear-eyed and honest about their potential; he twice voted against approving the SecureSavings program while serving in the House.

Sias noted that he had supported a sweeping — and heavily debated — 2018 bill that sought to fix PERA, which faced a $32 billion debt and, as a result, threatened the state’s credit rating. Young voted against that bill; he said in an interview he didn’t have enough information to know what impact the 2018 bill would have prior to being asked to vote on it.

The bill, which became law, requires the state to put $225 million per year into PERA, and it cut cost-of-living adjustments and increased per-paycheck contributions. Young said he thinks the law has had some positive impacts but still needs to be re-examined.

Young said that inflation is the reason the state, with his support, sent Coloradans their Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights refund checks early this year. That move has drawn criticism from Sias and other Republicans, who’ve accused Young, Gov. Jared Polis and other Democrats of criticizing TABOR until it benefited them politically.

Young dismissed that allegation, though he said he supported replacing TABOR “with a rational policy that actually gets us to great outcomes as a state.” As other Democrats have said before, he criticized TABOR’s impact on education funding and said a different program would help the state address systemic problems.

He said he’s always acknowledged the checks were a product of TABOR (he did so in April and August press conferences) and that they were intended only to give Coloradans much-needed financial relief.

“I think I’ve made every effort to be honest with the public about what was being done,” he said. “And if people want to call that cynical, I guess that’s everybody’s opinion, they’re entitled to it. But at end of the day, what we’re trying to do is respond to dramatic price increases and inflation, not wait until six or eight months later.”

As for whether he represented the Republican’s best chance of capturing a statewide seat, Young said he was confident that wouldn’t happen. Even if you buy the theory that his office is naturally associated with conservative politics, he said, he’d won as a Democrat in conservative districts before.

“I’m very used to tough races,” he said. “I know how to win.”

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