Compared to the other statewide elected officials — governor, secretary of state and attorney general and the University of Colorado at-large regent — the number of times State Treasurer Dave Young’s name comes up on a Google search doesn't add up to much.
The former Greeley math teacher, Democratic state representative and member of the legislature's Joint Budget Committee doesn’t count success in media hits, unlike the others elected from border to border.
Every Colorado treasurer since 1975 — other than Mark Hillman, who served a one-year appointment when Mike Coffman deployed to Iraq in 2005 — has sought higher office, including Young's predecessor, Republican Walker Stapleton, who used the office as a springboard to the 2018 governor's race. In 1977, Sam Brown stepped down to run the Peace Corps for the Carter administration after two years as state treasurer.
A lower profile might break the mold, but it doesn’t equate to taking it easy.
“You don’t want to hear excitement in the treasury,” the rare political breed currently in the job told Colorado Politics with a smile.
Greeley to Gold Dome
Young said he was approached about running for the treasurer’s job after managing the state's finances as a key member of the legislature's Joint Budget Committee when he was a state representative.
“I thought I knew a lot about the treasury," he said. "They come to JBC every year, you see their budget request, read everything over.”
He spent time talking about the job with then-former deputy state treasurer Eric Rothaus and others and came away believing he had a deeper understanding of the office only to find out it was even more complex than he had thought.
In 2018, the treasurer’s position was an open seat, and Young beat back one primary challenger, Bernard Douthit, then went on to defeat Republican businessman Brian Watson by 7 percentage points.
A native Coloradan, Young taught at Heath Junior High in Greeley from 1975 to 1999. He followed that with a decade at the University of Colorado-Denver as a senior instructor in information and learning technologies.
In 2011, then-Gov. John Hickenlooper tapped Rep. Jim Riesberg to become the commissioner of insurance in the Department of Regulatory Agencies. Young was appointed to finish out Riesberg's term, and then won election to the seat in 2012, 2014 and 2016. His wife, Mary, also a teacher, now represents House District 50, selected by vacancy committee to finish out the term of Rep. Rochelle Galindo, who resigned in the wake of sexual harassment allegations (which were never proven).
In 2014, then-House Speaker Dickey Lee Hullinghorst named Dave Young as one of two Democratic House members on the committee that writes the first draft of the state budget, based on the pitches and pleas from department heads.
As a lawmaker, Young carried the bill to set up the Office of Public Guardianship, one of the few areas in which Young has been criticized since becoming treasurer. A guardian is someone appointed by a court, or from a county protection office or private group, to look after the interests of an at-risk person. But some guardians have been accused of abusing vulnerable clients, either physically or by not providing the care they need. In other cases, at-risk people lack guardians altogether and are left, sometimes for months or even years, in hospitals, because no one will step forward to take on the responsibility of ensuring their care.
The guardian ad litem is the "guardian of last resort," taking on the care of those for whom no one steps up. The office was established in Colorado by legislation in 2017 but was intended to be funded with gifts, grants and donations. That meant no office at all but a board unable to fulfill the mission. Young said in 2019 that he didn't ask for state dollars, because he didn't want to take advantage of his position on the JBC.
In 2019, the legislature funded the office, and Young was accused of using undue influence as state treasurer to make that happen, according to former state Sen. Rob Hernandez, who has been a critic of the program. Young told Colorado Politics at the time that he didn't lobby in favor of the bill, which raised questions around Amendment 41's prohibition on former lawmakers engaging in lobbying. Young said it was OK for him to be involved, because as state treasurer he’s concerned about how state money gets spent.
Hernandez said that out of 20 clients in two years, four have died, causes of death unknown, which Hernandez said is in contrast to what the guardians are supposed to do, which is to protect people. The deaths have raised a lot of questions about how OPG is doing its job, questions OPG isn't answering, citing HIPAA, Hernandez said.
The job of managing the state’s complex checkbook, and transactions for 23 state departments and related divisions, is a minute-by-minute job, Young explained. “You want to be sure there’s an even flow ... things that were typical before the pandemic and economic crisis, we still do.”
The safety of the taxpayers' dollars is the top priority, particularly in the pandemic and the economic downturn, he said.
Once the virus hit Colorado, the treasurer had to keep a close eye on the state’s bank accounts, to make sure the money needed for emergency purposes was available. That got tougher in 2020, when the deadlines for income tax returns, both at the state and federal level, were pushed back three months and into the next fiscal year, which monkeyed with the state's fiscal year-end balance. That meant the reserve had to be spent down to cover those months, something that was unforeseen.
The treasurer’s other responsibility is managing debt, and if there’s even the sliver of a silver lining, it’s that the state was able to take advantage of low-interest rates and refinance some of the debt.
One aspect of that was an interest-free loan program for K-12 schools, to ensure no school district was insolvent, which might have impacted the state’s credit rating.
Young has been able to rely on not just the experienced staff but on someone who’s got some experience with a recession: former Treasurer Cary Kennedy, who’s now a policy advisor to the governor, who helped the state weather the Great Recession that began in 2008.
“I didn’t have to reach out very far” to find people with recession experience; that included Eric Rothaus, who had been deputy treasurer for Kennedy and is in that same role in Young’s office, as well as Ryan Parsells, who had been Stapleton’s deputy treasurer, and someone Young knew from his time serving on JBC.
“I felt with Eric and Cary close by we would have a good sense of what was going to happen,” Young said.
It was more work than he anticipated, Young said. What became obvious early on was that the economy was going to need a jumpstart.
In the last recession, the money didn’t start flowing back into the economy; people couldn’t get loans and lending wasn’t happening, and the recovery took a lot longer.
That led to the CLIMBER program, a $250 million fund approved by the legislature to provide working capital for small businesses of up to 99 employees, and which launched in December. Businesses that need inventory to get going again can get a loan.
The other, more long-term program under Young’s watch has been Secure Savings, a mandatory retirement savings program for the private sector with legislation launched the same week the first case of COVID was reported in Colorado last year.
That’s a bigger program than CLIMBER, Young said, with a potential impact on 900,000 employees who don’t have access to retirement savings at work.
“We’ve answered the call,” Young said.
One of the more public-facing programs in the department is unclaimed property, something that had attracted consternation about Stapleton. When he took office, there was a backlog of about 13,000 claims left over from his predecessor, who had done a good job of promoting the program, perhaps a bit too well, which led to the backlog. “You can’t staff up enough to keep up,” Young said.
The Unclaimed Property fund, known as the Great Colorado Payback, is bank accounts, insurance proceeds, contents of safe deposit boxes and other real property that have been turned over to the state treasurer when the owner can't be found.
Young, who is president of the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators this year, added staff to get that backlog resolved, which has now been eliminated, with a record $47 million returned to Coloradans in 2020 alone.
“We’re really committed to getting unclaimed property back” to the rightful owners, he said. The office is now looking forward to promoting the program again to benefit the return.
The pandemic also had an impact on the state’s ability to borrow money, most notably, the second issuance of certificates of participation. That's a type of bond, tied to Senate Bill 17-267, a bill that allowed the state to enter into lease-purchase agreements in exchange for cash. The 2020 COP was a $500 million issuance scheduled for March 17, just after the first signs of the pandemic were starting to surface.
“We were ready to go on March 17,” the same day that the municipal markets had the biggest outflow it had ever had, Young said, and people started pulling cash out. In a market like that, no one is buying bonds. “Here we come with $500 million in COPs. It’s like setting up a booth at a flea market and no one is buying,” he said.
The law said “you shall issue COPs by June 30 every year,” but that didn’t mean anyone was willing to buy them.
That meant taking a step back and spending 70 days figuring out how to make it work, and the end result was a better interest rate for those COPs as well as more premiums, which is an extra allotment based on the status of the state. That meant an extra $110 million on top of the $500 million with an interest rate of just a fraction over 2%.
It was a great outcome but a huge amount of work. The third wave of those COP issuances is now in progress.
“It was like charting a course that didn’t have a roadmap from before,” he said, giving a lot of credit to the staff in his office. “I can’t tell people enough how proud they should be” of the treasury staff, he said.
Better fiscal health
Young is fascinated with improving the financial health of the people of Colorado.
“There are large numbers of people who don’t have the financial health that’s sustainable for themselves and their family,” he said.
The Secure Savings program is a good example, he said. People think they’re going to rely on Social Security, which just isn’t sustainable, and that means they’ll be working longer, or if their health gives out, relying on safety net services to keep them going. Social Security won’t be enough, and taxpayers will be paying for it.
His interest is in changing people’s attitudes about retirement. Financial education is a big part of that, he said. As a teacher, he ran the Denver Post’s stock market game, and found his students were asking more about real world economics, like why their stocks went down.
“A lot of people think it’s so difficult that they give up trying. There are basic principles you apply,” such as being paid interest rather than paying interest. That takes discipline, which is sometimes very difficult, he said.
So what does Young know now that he wish he’d known when he started? It’s not a mystery, he explained. The possibility of an economic struggle was real, but what he knows now is to be flexible. Don't get pulled in and bogged down by the drama of the moment for the sake of the mission.
“Don’t get twitterpated," he advised, laughing, harkening to 25 years of teaching junior high was good preparation for that. "Every day is a little chaotic in the classroom and you just roll with it. But it’s really the unknown that’s concerning. Now that we’re on the other side of it, with great teams of people, you wade in and it will be OK.”
Young is also interested in setting up a true rainy day savings fund. That's different than he statutory reserve, which was funded at 13% of general fund, or about $1.7 billion, in the next state budget. A true rainy day fund would have guardrails on how much the state can spend down every year, Young explained. Along with Lauren Larson, the governor’s budget director, and state controller Bob Jaros, they started talking to the JBC in 2019. But the pandemic and the economic crisis hit and those conversations went on hold.
But he expects those conversations to resume, particularly with unexpected revenues from deep but ultimately unnecessary budget cuts a year ago that are now available.
Found money is a good candidate for thoughtful savings, he said.
The treasurer is an ex-officio member of the state pension plan’s governing board, and past Republican treasurers have made political hay in that role, mostly seeking pension reform in an effort to shore up the pension plan’s liabilities.
PERA has not had as large a presence in the life of the treasurer since Young took office, primarily because of the legislature’s attempts to provide more financial support through Senate Bill 18-200. That legislation requires the state budget to put in $225 million every year, although that payment was suspended in 2020 due to the pandemic.
Young was one of 24 Democrats in the House who voted against SB200, which wasn't popular with the state teachers union.
But Young said it's still a concern, because PERA affects the state’s credit rating, and prior to SB 200, the rating agencies had warned about putting the state on a negative credit watch. They pulled that warning once SB 200 passed, and Young, elected the following November, was able to put his attention toward Secure Savings.
“This is part of financial health, and the financial health of our people is how we prosper as a people," he said. "If we lift everyone up — public and private — that’s the foundation for building a strong economy.”
Young is running for re-election in 2022; so far, he’s the only declared candidate, although the election is still about 18 months out.
He said he doesn’t think much beyond that 2022 race, although the walls of the treasurer’s office show that despite the low profile, voters have been eager to put past treasurers into higher office: Govs. Roy Romer and Bill Owens both have that background, as does Cofffman, who went on to serve five terms in Congress and is now Aurora's mayor. Besides Stapleton, Kennedy ran for governor on the Democratic ticket three years ago.
“I’m really enjoying doing this work, and these initiatives that we’re got going take time to play out. I want to make sure I have the opportunity to move them forward and do them correctly.
“I’m not ruling anything out, but I’m focused on the work at hand.”