The Colorado General Assembly has upped its budget for partisan legislative staff by nearly 23% in the past three sessions, part of an effort to put the skids on poaching of employees.
At the same time, the state House had to make a lower offer to its new chief clerk, Robin Jones, because what he was initially offered (and what his predecessor was paid) exceeded state-imposed salary limits on nonpartisan positions, according to several sources.
It’s an odd conundrum.
Pay for state employees — and that includes the nonpartisan legislative staff — has to follow a set pay range. The same rule does not apply to partisan staff, meaning they can be paid whatever lawmakers think they’re worth.
And to House Speaker KC Becker, D-Boulder, and House Minority Leader Patrick Neville, R-Castle Rock, those partisan staffers are worth a lot more than they used to be.
A request to the General Assembly from Colorado Politics under the Colorado Open Records Act revealed that most of the legislature's top-level nonpartisan staff has seen modest pay increases for several years. But some of the partisan staffers in the House — both for the GOP and the Democrats — have seen significant pay increases.
Take, for example, the chief of staff for both parties in the House. Both are currently paid $90,000 per year.
In 2017, that position with the House Democrats paid $78,000; the $90,000 pay in 2019 represents a 13% pay bump in two years.
In 2017, the position didn’t exist within the GOP minority, but once hired, Neville’s new chief of staff came in at $90,000 per year.
Partisan staff pay for the top eight positions for House Democrats has increased by 23% in the past two years. That includes making two part-time positions into full-time jobs. Those positions paid a combined $50,000 in 2017; now, the combined total is $138,000.
Total costs for top partisan staff on the House majority side have risen from $377,290 in 2017 to $490,100 in 2019, just under 23%.
A lot of job shifting has taken place within the House Republican staff, but the pay has grown by 14% in two years for the seven top posts, from a cumulative total of $328,000.
Since 2016-17, the General Assembly has upped its overall operating budget — which covers salaries and pay for lawmakers as well as pay for both partisan and nonpartisan staff a— from $13.7 million to $17.7 million, an increase of 22.6%.
Some of that is attributable to a bump in pay for lawmakers that began with the 2019 session and a 10% increase in staffing for the 2019-20 fiscal year. Higher contributions for the state pension plan, which lawmakers are enrolled in, also played a role.
New nonpartisan staff positions this year includes the first-ever human resources director for the General Assembly, hired in the wake of the #MeToo scandal at the Capitol in 2018, and for additional staff in that office in 2019.
Pay increases for the nonpartisan staff have grown by 5% over the same time period, although it’s somewhat skewed by a bump for Jones, who started off as deputy chief clerk in 2016 and who was given a 10% pay increase between 2017 and 2019, prior to becoming chief clerk of the House.
Jones had taken a $15,000 pay cut when he went from the Legislative Council — where he had worked for a quarter century — to the chief clerk’s staff in 2016. The rest of the top nonpartisan staff have received pay increases more in line with what rank-and-file state employees receive, about 3%.
When the House Services Committee, which was charged with handling the job search for chief clerk, made its offer to Jones, that offer came in at $118,000, which is roughly what his predecessor, Marilyn Eddins, had made in the last two years she was on the job, according to CoPo's open records request.
However, in the process of reviewing that offer, Becker found out that it exceeded the salary range for the position and came back with an offer of $105,000. She told CoPo that was a more appropriate figure, given that Jones would be going into his first year as chief clerk and that Eddins had been on the job for 17 years.
However, because legislative leaders found out that Eddins' pay exceeded the salary cap, Becker said Eddins briefly had to take a pay cut just before she retired this year. Eddins had turned down salary increases in her final two years, according to both Becker and information obtained via the open records request.
Why the big bumps, especially for partisan staff?
Years ago, those who worked for lawmakers, such as legislative aides or in the partisan staff office, didn’t make much. Partisan staff jobs within the General Assembly have been viewed as more prestigious than high-paying and a place to network with lawmakers and lobbyists for future job opportunities. Lawmakers’ aides and legislative staffers learned the ropes and then moved on.
Moving on often means elected office.
Among current lawmakers, House Assistant Majority Leader Chris Kennedy of Lakewood started off as a legislative aide to then-state Rep. Max Tyler, also of Lakewood. State Rep. Leslie Herod of Denver once served on the staff of the House Majority office and later as a legislative aide to then-Rep. Rosemary Marshall of Denver.
Sen. Lois Court of Denver, president pro tempore of the Senate, worked for then-state Sen. Andy Kerr of Lakewood*. Rep. Kevin Van Winkler served as a policy aide in the Senate GOP office.
Sen. Dominick Moreno, chair of the Joint Budget Committee, was an aide to then-Rep. Ed Casso of Commerce City. Rep. Kim Ransom of Lone Tree once worked as an aide to two Republican senators from Douglas County: Sens. John Evans and Tom Wiens.
In the past year, the two communications staffers for House Democrats have been “poached,” as Becker sees it, for higher-paid positions with the governor’s office and the nonprofit sector. Another top partisan staffer headed off to the cannabis industry. In the past, others have become lobbyists or policy advisers.
Becker told CoPo she increased the pay for partisan staffers to make the jobs more valuable and to slow the poaching.
Becker said that when she became speaker of the House, she looked at staff salaries and the budget and found out that she had room for pay increases or to hire contract staff.
There was one other difference: The Senate’s staffing budget was broken out in documents that showed what the majority and minority offices received, but the staff budget for the House was listed as one line item.
“We have to do the budget differently,” Becker said.
For this year, the budget was broken down between the minority and majority. She discovered that the House budget for staff (and the number of staff) was significantly less than the Senate budget, by some $250,000.
“That isn’t fair," she said. "The Senate has more [full-time staff] and more budget,” but the House has more lawmakers and a smaller staff budget.
“The demands on our staff are very high. It’s a high-stress, long-hours job, typically with a lot of turnover,” Becker acknowledged. “It’s high level intensity, and I don’t think their pay reflected it."
Aides to lawmakers also got a pay increase, although not as much as the top partisan staff. Every aide now makes a minimum of $15 per hour, Becker said.
But are top partisan staffers being paid excessively? The answer is in the eye of the beholder, especially if you look at the number of days per year that lawmakers meet, and compare staff salaries to those in other states.
In California, a chief of staff to a lawmaker (and they have 79 of them) can make as much as $170,000 per year. The chief of staff to the speaker of the California Assembly makes $222,480 annually. However, the California legislature is a year-round body.
In New York, also a year-round body, the chief of staff makes $83,995 per year; the communications director is paid $44,363.
Although the Texas legislature meets 140 days in a calendar year, much closer to Colorado’s 120 days, that body only meets every other year. According to the Texas Tribune, a handful of top partisan staff within the legislature make well above $200,000 per year, including two who were hired in January. Twenty-nine partisan staffers who work in the Texas legislature make at least $93,000 per year, out of a total staff of more than 900.
And one other thing: Colorado Politics had to file open records requests to get all of the information on Colorado General Assembly staffers for this story. While the information is public, it isn't published where taxpayers can see it.
No such problem with California and New York, which make public (and easily searchable) how much their legislative staffers, including partisan employees, are paid. And Texas publishes its pay schedules for nonpartisan staff.
Correction: an earlier version misidentified the lawmaker for whom Sen. Lois Court worked as a legislative aide.