the Joint Budget Committee, 2023

the 2023 Joint Budget Committee. Photo courtesy Sen. Rachel Zenzinger's Facebook page. 

The Joint Budget Committee this week heard requests that haven't always made it to the top priority list when the panel gave the public an opportunity to weigh in on their priorities at the state Capitol.

Usually, those who testify at these hearings bring concerns about pay or funding on behalf of state employees, public schools, and higher education students and faculty.

But Wednesday's hearing brought with it a slightly different set of priorities.

A trio of women pleaded with the Joint Budget Committee to tackle the growing crisis at family planning clinics around the state, as they are being inundated with patients who are experiencing long waits for family planning services at places like Planned Parenthood.


Lauren Smith, policy director for Elephant Circle and Soul to Soul Sisters, a merged reproductive justice nonprofit, asked the JBC to consider a bump of $2 million for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment's 80 family planning clinics, which do not provide abortion services. 

After the overturning of Roe, the need for family planning services is greater than ever, she told the JBC. CDPHE's family planning program fills the gap of care for low-income communities, including in rural areas, and reducing unintended pregnancies. 

Smith was joined by Kayla Frawley, the abortion and reproductive rights director for Progress Now Colorado, and Amanda Carlson of Cobalt Advocates. Frawley told Colorado Politics the $2 million would provide access to 5,000 more Coloradans for those services.

Hunter Nelson of the Colorado Children's Campaign told Colorado Politics that since Colorado is one of the states where people are turning to for abortion care, the wait lists for places like Planned Parenthood has grown from a few days to a few weeks. As a result, people can't access family planning services at Planned Parenthood, which can also be time-sensitive. Instead, they are turning to the state's clinics, which need more resources to provide those services. 

The additional funding for CDPHE "will relieve some of the strain on the providers who offer a full range of reproductive services, ensuring ongoing access to family planning services for Coloradans across the state," according to a recent blog post from the Colorado Children's Campaign.

Despite the attention being paid to Colorado as an oasis state for abortion care and the domino effect on family planning clinics, the bump in funding for CDPHE has not made it into Gov, Jared Polis' 2023-24 state budget request. 

Another request that isn't on the radar: a bump in lawmakers' salaries.

That came from Anette Bowser, who is the director for the Black Democratic Legislative Caucus*. Bowser did not speak on behalf of the caucus Wednesday.

Colorado, which she termed a "hybrid legislative state," is in the middle of the pack for what it pays lawmakers. If the annual salary, at $41,449, is broken down by a 40-hour workweek, it comes out to $21.58 per hour, Bowser said. The state's median household income, however, is around $80,000, so lawmakers make barely half of that.

"You make below the poverty line," Bowser asserted.

Some states, including Colorado compensate with per diem. For lawmakers who live 50 miles or more from Denver, that's $234 per day during the session, but just $45 per day for those who live within 50 miles. 

"Why do I care what you make?" Bowser said. "I personally believe the salary of our state legislature dictates the caliber of the state legislators and their capacity."

Bowser said lawmakers are expected to work for their salary for 120 days in January through May, and for constituents the rest of the year.

"Our legislators should be paid for that time as well," she added.

While lawmakers are only compensated for the days they are in session, their annual salary is paid out in 12 increments spread across each month of the year. 

JBC members did not comment. 

While Bowser does not represent the views of the Democratic Black Caucus, one member of that caucus has been raising that issue on social media.

Rep. Elisabeth Epps, D-Denver, commented last week she was struggling to pay for medication while calling on lawmakers to address prescription drugs prices, not her salary.

In December, she also pointed out on social media that an unnamed lawmaker chose not to run again because he couldn't afford it. 

She also spoke of "working for free" in the month leading to the start of the legislative session.

"Consider who can do all that for free. And who can’t," she tweeted.

Another group that testified about pay included members of the state employee union Colorado WINS, which recently negotiated an update to the three-year contract with the state. The contract ensures a minimum wage of $15.75 per hour, and a "rebuilt pay plan to make the state more competitive with other employers to attract and maintain an outstanding workforce." That's all been incorporated into the governor's Nov. 1 budget submission.

That contract also includes a 5% cost of living increase.

The pay plan referenced in the contract update pertains to what was once known as "steps," a way for employees to move through the salary range. That went away when lawmakers in 1998 came up with what was known as "pay for performance," although it was never fully implemented nor fully funded. 

The step system of the 1990s, however, was criticized for in effect failing to reward long-time employees. It gave raises to employees annually in their first five years of service, and not another raise until the 10th year. 

Lorenzo Harris, a tax policy advisor with the Department of Revenue and a WINS member, said that by voting to fund the contract and reinstituting step raises, this committee will demonstrate statewide it is serious about its commitment to state employees.

"Step raises will address key career and financial stresses for state employees, providing economic stability for us as we provide societal stability for our residents," Harris said.

The 5% cost of living increase will allow him to remain in Denver, he said.

The cost of living also was cheered by Skip Miller, an information technology employee at the Colorado School of Mines and president of Colorado WINS.

Asking for more money didn't go over well with JBC member Rep. Rod Bockenfeld, R-Watkins, who said he has to answer to his constituents. State employees have made a trade-off, he indicated: The state, as well as schools and local governments, pays into a defined benefit plan in exchange for lower pay. State employees have said they're willing to take a cut in pay up front, and rewarded at the back end with the defined benefit plan managed by the Public Employees' Retirement Association, Bockenfeld explained. 

But now, public employees want to be paid market rates, and his constituents have difficulties with that, he said.

"The folks paying the taxes get less lucrative packages from a total compensation standpoint," he said.

Miller responded that the solution was to put defined benefit plans back into the private sector, but agreed that "this is a bargain we’ve made; we understand we won’t make as much in the public sector as we could in private enterprise, that’s part of the package."

He added that employees should be able to make a living wage, and there are some who are really struggling, and those are the ones WINS is most concerned about.

"We want to be able to continue to work for the state, we love our jobs, but have to live in the state with the cost of living as it is," Miller said.

Editor's note: a previous version incorrectly identified Anette Bowser.

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