DENVER (AP) – Colorado’s treasurer is a little-known office with some big names on the ballot.

Republican Treasurer Walker Stapleton is seeking a second term and is considered a likely GOP candidate for higher office in the future. A second cousin of former President George H. W. Bush, Stapleton has enormous political resources at his fingertips if he decides to seek higher office.

But first he has to get past Betsy Markey, a Democrat who knocked off former Republican Rep. Marilyn Musgrave in 2008. She’s the Democrats’ only female candidate for statewide office, and party members hope she can again knock out a well-known GOP incumbent.

The office is one of five statewide elected positions in state government. The treasurer manages Colorado’s investments, safeguards the state checkbook and makes sure bills are paid on time.

The treasurer also helps oversee Colorado’s public pension system, called the Public Employee’s Retirement Association, which covers some 300,000 teachers and state workers. It is this duty that generated the most heat for Stapleton, who calls PERA a “dysfunctional retirement system” that could bankrupt the state in future years.

“This is everybody’s problem, regardless of political party,” Stapleton said in a recent interview. The retirement system now has some $26 billion in unfunded liability – the estimated amount Colorado owes current and future retirees over the next 30 years.

Two years ago Stapleton sued PERA for not providing him records on top pension recipients.

Stapleton’s lawsuit failed. The Colorado Court of Appeals ruled last year that the treasurer does not have “unfettered access” to pensioners’ private records, and the Colorado Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal.

Stapleton said he’d continue pressure on PERA in a second term.

“Colorado’s future depends on it,” Stapleton said.

Markey believes PERA is in better shape than Stapleton suggests. The pension’s board voted last year at Stapleton’s urging to lower its expected rate of return on investments to 7.5 percent, down from 8 percent. Markey says the change was helpful, and combined with a 2010 law raising retirement age and making other trims, PERA should be left alone. Markey said the treasurer shouldn’t worry so much about the retirement system.

“In a state like ours, there a lot going on, and we can be doing a lot more than talking about the retirement system,” said Markey, who said she’d work to increase transparency in state investments and focus on transportation funding.

Markey served a single term in Congress representing Colorado’s 4th Congressional District on the Eastern Plains. After her defeat in 2010 to Republican Rep. Cory Gardner, she worked for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in Washington. Markey says she got homesick and returned to Colorado last year.

She’s not been able to keep up with Stapleton in the fundraising race, though. Stapleton had about $277,000 cash on hand as of Oct. 14, compared to about $16,000 for Markey, according to state financial disclosures.

Whoever wins will become an instant rising star for higher office. Both insisted they’re genuinely interested in the treasurer’s office, though Stapleton, noting the treasurer’s two-term limit, didn’t rule out seeking other offices down the line.

“I can guarantee you this is the last time I’m running for treasurer,” Stapleton said with a laugh.

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– By Kristen Wyatt, AP Writer

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