Wednesday, April 8, 2009

More on Pinnacol, higher ed and the JBC

Anonymous asks in the comments to a previous post,

Isn't this "too rich company" a state created and state controlled organization that has had the luxury of being exempt for taxes on the millions upon millions of dollars it has made over the years? I'm also curious why you would lean toward protecting the interests of a glorified insurance company over higher education and the communities where they're located.

I'm not questioning you here - I'd just be curious to hear your thoughts on the matter. CU, Colorado College, CSU and some of the larger institutions of learning may be able to brunt a 500million+ state-wide cut in higher-ed, but I don't know how Mesa, Western and Fort Lewis would bare.

Great question. This commenter gets right to some of the issues I have with the JBC's plan. Mainly, I'm not entirely sure how much control the state actually has over Pinnacol. I understand it was a state created entity and that prior to 2002 this sort of cash transfer would be legitimate. I'm not entirely sure how much control the legislature can exercise now that Pinnacol is considered a political subdivision of the state but is no longer under direct control. It's a legal morass as far as I can tell. I'd be shocked if Legislative Council hasn't given an opinion on the issue but I haven't seen that published anywhere (I'd love to read it if someone wishes to share it). Basically I'm not convinced that this is legal.

From an ethical standpoint I don't like the idea of the JBC purposefully pitting Pinnacol against higher ed like this. The JBC is holding a gun to the head of higher ed and demanding that Pinnacol pay the ransom - or the kids get it. I'm an advocate of hardball politics when its done smartly and strategically. This to me doesn't appear to have been done either smartly or strategically. I'm not privy to whatever backroom manuevers may have been taking place in the past few weeks so maybe this was the last stand but this just looks thuggish and, frankly, ugly.

Maybe that's the point though? Maybe JBC is taking a calculated stand to demonstrate to the public writ large just what a hole TABOR has left the state in? It's a possibility I suppose.

I think anyone who reads me regularly knows that I have no sympathy for insurance companies*. On a moral level I'm okay with raiding Pinnacol - it's the legal and ethical barriers that I'm having problems with.

For the record, I am completely unpersuaded by the arguments of the GOP and business interests that since this transfer would only be a short-term fix and thus we shouldn't move forward with it. If this is legal and there is clear and convincing legal opinions arguing as such then we should do it. Saving higher education in this state for just one more year is worth it.

As to the effect on the smaller institutions I think Adams State's CFO summed up the situation accurately,

Bill Mansheim, chief financial officer of Adams State College in Alamosa, said that unless money comes in from Pinnacol or another source, the school would have to raise tuition by 135 percent. "We cannot do that," he warned. "You're looking at closing down Adams State College."

The question I'm left to grapple with is, do the ends justify the means? Is saving higher ed such a worthy cause that it excuses the use of potentially extra-legal means? My heart says yes, higher education is one of the most important economic and social drivers for our state and we should protect it at all costs. My head isn't quite there yet.

Obviously I'm doing a lot of thinking aloud here. My mind isn't made up. There are a lot of "ifs" that when (or if) they are resolved could push me one way or the other. This is a very tough decision for the JBC, the legislature and the governors office and I'm not going to pretend that its a clear cut choice simply because I think higher ed is critically important.

The bigger take-away from all of this is that this is what life under TABOR and Arveschoug-Bird looks like. We can keep treating the symptoms (like the JBC has proposed here) and continue to watch the quality of life in our state decline or we can remove the cancer that is TABOR and Arveschoug-Bird and allow our state to thrive and our elected representatives to govern.

* one though should distinguish between a health insurance company whose essential business model is to provide no services, stand between doctors and patients and get filthy stinking rich doing so and Pinnacol. The latter is the insurer of last resort for Workers Compensation claims in the state, that's a company that is a net positive for the state.


Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

I'm not entirely sure that the operating company, and the worker's compensation fund from which the $500 million might be taken are the same entity, even though the two are closely related. If so, this might explain the legislative authority to act. I don't personally know those details, although it should be not that difficult to obtain a list of all of the state's funds and their cash balances, probably from the state treasurer's office, the JBC staff, or the Governor's budget office.

Steve Balboni said...

Thanks Andrew, I really appreciate you weighing in on this.