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The Colorado State Capitol in Denver Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

Democratic legislative leaders Tuesday introduced a bill that one Republican lawmaker said will be the biggest expansion of full-time equivalent employment at the state Capitol in history.

Senate Bill 244 would provide health benefits to legislative aides, most of whom earn about $15 per hour, not enough to afford health insurance on their own. Aides would be able to get the same health insurance that is available to lawmakers.

But in order to make them eligible for health benefits, Democrats had to do one other thing: increase the full-time equivalent numbers from temporary part-time to permanent part-time.  Temporary employees, such as aides, aren't currently counted as part of FTE; under SB 244, they would be. It would almost double the number of FTE within the legislative department, from 74.4 to 144.4 FTE.

It also will cost the state an extra $617,348, almost all of it in general fund dollars, and that's primarily for health insurance costs, according to Senate Majority Leader Sen. Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, one of the bill's co-sponsors, along with Senate President Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo; House Speaker Rep. Alec Garnett, D-Denver, and House Majority Leader Rep. Daneya Esgar, D-Pueblo.

In the legislative appropriations bill, Fenberg said, Senate Bill 196, aides' pay will go up to about $16 per hour, and each lawmakers has 1,300 hours of legislative aide time assigned to them. That allows for aides to work full-time during the 120-day session and part-time during the rest of the year.

Some lawmakers have one aide during the session; some prefer to have two. If there isn't enough money for paying aides out of their legislative allocation, some lawmakers tap campaign finance funds to pay aides, which is allowable under state campaign finance laws. 

The pandemic, lawmakers say, has made the work of legislative aides even more important, including when lawmakers are technically on recess but aides are working full-time to work on bills and other tasks, which has led to the allocated bank of hours getting used up a lot faster.

Sen. Brittany Pettersen, D-Lakewood, is advocating for more aide hours. Lawmakers can have a full-time aide for four months of the year, and after that it's six hours a week for the other eight months, she estimated. More hours right now is even more important due to the economic fallout from COVID, Pettersen said. "People in our districts need additional support and we don't have the staff support to meet those needs. It doesn't have to be like that. We can fix it." 

The current pay doesn't meet the needs for a living wage, and aides can't live on working six to  20 hours a week, Pettersen said, not to mention not being able to afford health insurance. 

Six hours a week during the interim doesn't meet lawmakers' needs, Pettersen said; "It's one of the frustrating parts of this job." It's often a person's first job out of college that teaches them the basics of being in politics, and shouldn't be just an entry-level position, she said, in order to provide the support to lawmakers. Even 20 hours a week is not enough, she said. "We need more hours that would fill the interim gap, especially during the pandemic when the economic fallout will last several more years."

The wage needs to be boosted to a living wage as well, she said, perhaps to $22 per hour. "These jobs are important. You shouldn't have to live in poverty or come from a family where it doesn't matter how much you make," or have to rely on a parent's or spouse's health insurance. 

Fenberg said SB 244 does not change the number of hours aides would work; allocation of hours is in Senate Bill 196. The goal is to make sure aides are classified in a way to make them eligible for health benefits, he explained.

Members get a bank of hours and can hire two people to split the hours, Fenberg explained. But under SB 244, only one aide would be eligible for health benefits. "No other department does employment this way," he added.

While the caucus supports health benefits, some lawmakers want to retain flexibility, whether it's having two aides during the session and nobody off-session, or some mix thereof.

"It's a step in the evolution, not the end," he said. The most important step is to ensure access to benefits, and the next conversation is whether to have full-time, year-round aides. "I'm excited we can extend benefits," he said. 

The change in FTE is not going over well in the Republican Senate caucus. Senate Minority Leader Sen. Chris Holbert, R-Douglas County, was so unhappy with the decision, which he has called the largest single expansion of legislative personnel in state history, that he refused to sponsor the annual spending bill (SB 196) for the legislative department, which is traditionally carried by the majority and minority leaders of the House and Senate. 

Holbert said Wednesday that it's one of many steps toward a full-time year-round legislature. While that's not in SB 244, it looks like a first step toward it, he said.

Holbert has supported increasing aide hours in the past so that lawmakers have one part-time aide off-session. That leaves someone available in the office so that when constituents need help, they can respond and link the constituent to the lawmaker who's working at their regular job.

Opening the door for benefits, both health insurance and PERA eligibility, "is all wonderful if you're an aide and need them," Holbert said. But those aide jobs were intended to be and have been part-time. "It's a way for someone to get a start, to see if the Capitol is a place where they want to work."

He pointed to his chief of staff, Tim Griesemer, who started out as an intern. Many other aides have moved on to be members, staff or lobbyists, he pointed out. "Good things come from being a part-time legislative aide, but it's unfortunate that the majority has decided to move forward with this massive expansion of personnel."

Making aides more available for constituents is a good effort, he added, but it's unnecessary to make them a portion of an FTE and pay them benefits. "I don't think it's necessary. The people of Colorado voted to make this a part-time citizen legislature and this is a significant departure from that."

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