"It is difficult to make predictions,
especially about the future."
— Karl Steinke, Danish politician
Surveying the political landscape as a pundit can be a risky business. There are always far too many unknown unknowns and the constant opportunity for surprise. Nonetheless, this moment in Colorado feels as though tectonic forces may be driving us towards a more fractious future just as Democrats appear to have marshaled a majority behind a more progressive public agenda. I would suggest that impending legislative squabbles are more likely to develop among progressive constituencies rather than with conservative zealots, who are likely to maintain their allegiance to moribund policy priorities for yet another election cycle or two. Republicans seem congenitally prone to attributing electoral defeats to voter misapprehension of their virtues, rather than the possibility their proposals are simply unpopular.
A teachers’ strike is looming in Denver in which one demand is an opportunity to earn a $100,000 a year salary at the close of a successful career. This probably sounds like a lot of money, particularly to the majority of taxpayers and parents who are lucky to be making half that. It sounds like a lot to me, whose first job with AT&T following college provided a munificent thousand dollars a month. As a matter of comparison, however, the latest edition of the Colorado Sufficiency Standard from the Colorado Center on Law and Policy, finds that an annual income of $94,000 is required to support a family of four in Fort Collins.
The January issue of FORTUNE magazine offers a 28-page glimpse of America’s “Shrinking Middle Class.” It finds that not only have middle-class incomes failed to exceed the purchasing power enjoyed in the peak year of 1973, but the size of the middle class is shrinking as well — most of the out-migration into the provinces of the poor if not poverty itself. Because of rising minimum wages in many states, including Colorado, both the poor and the upper-middle class have actually enjoyed greater income growth over the past 35 years than the middle class where 40 percent now report living from paycheck to paycheck.
Trapped in the middle of this economic struggle are government employees. Other than administrators and senior professors at Colorado State University, it is doubtful that more than a handful of state employees in Larimer County earn $94,000 – certainly not local teachers, police or social workers. Since the “dot.com” bust at the turn of the century, the legislature has failed to offer raises to state employees. With the imposition of larger contributions for the PERA pension plan, the occasional 1 or 2 percent across-the-board raise has failed to keep state workers ahead of inflation. Like the larger middle class, they are falling behind. In a resurgent economy they are voting with their feet.
The current shutdown of the federal government reflects a similar disregard for the value of government employees and the work they do. The demand that many still report to work without pay smacks of indentured servitude. It can only be a matter of a few more weeks before one of the federal unions asks its members to walk off the job. If air traffic controllers and/or TSA agents shut down the American airline industry, the caterwauling will reach deafening levels. Tucked into Gov. Jared Polis’ State of the State speech, although little noticed, was, “We will protect the rights of workers to organize and collectively bargain for the pay and benefits they deserve.” This may have been little more than a tip of his hat to the teachers’ unions with whom he has had an uneasy alliance. But it will not go unnoticed by Colorado WINS or the State Patrol. Both would like to secure recognition as bargaining agents for their members and they should have the votes to achieve this in both chambers of the Legislature.
Colorado law already provides an assurance that state workers will receive a prevailing wage comparable to that offered in the private sector. And, while periodic salary surveys have adjusted salary ranges, virtually all state employees remain stalled at the bottom of these wage ranges. Last year, it required $60 million just to move them to the new minimums. The salary compression that exists represents an unfunded liability. Thirty years ago administrative staff and service workers at Colorado institutions of higher education appealed the fact they were being underpaid for comparable work inside the state personnel system. They won the right to become part of the civil service system and many saw their salaries double.
The state is facing a growing crisis filling vacant positions, which often sit open for months. This is an inherited problem for the governor. Another lawsuit or a strike is inevitable unless the JBC designs a plan to properly compensate its workforce.
Miller Hudson is a public affairs consultant and a former state legislator. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.