Judges seek steep pay hikes

Colorado top elected of­fi­cials also would ben­e­fit since in­creases are linked

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Brian Ea­son

Colorado judges are ask­ing for more than dou­ble the pay raise of the typ­i­cal state em­ployee in 2017 — a wish that, if granted, would trig­ger a rip­ple ef­fect of pay hikes for the state’s top elected of­fi­cials.

In the judicial branch’s bud­get pre­sen­ta­tion re­cently, Chief Jus­tice Nancy Rice of the Colorado Supreme Court laid out a case for a 3.15 per­cent raise for judges and cer­tain staff mem­bers, on top of the 2.5 per­cent across-the-board pay hike that Gov. John Hick­en­looper pro­posed in his an­nual bud­get.

Rice’s pro­posal also calls for another 3.15 per­cent raise in 2018 — on top of any cost-of-liv­ing in­creases for state em­ploy­ees — which she said would bring Colorado’s judicial pay in line with that of com­pa­ra­ble states. Judge pay cur­rently ranges from about $152,000 to $176,000.

“It’s the one thing I would like to ac­com­plish be­fore I re­tire as chief is to have some judicial pay eq­uity,” Rice said Dec. 12 at a Joint Bud­get Com­mit­tee hear­ing.

The ad­di­tional raises would cost the judicial branch $2.4 mil­lion next year. But be­cause of a re­cent change to state law, judges aren’t the only ones who would re­ceive a bump in pay.

Be­gin­ning in 2019, law­mak­ers and other top elected of­fi­cials will see their pay rise as their salaries be­come tied to a cer­tain per­cent­age of what judges make. So a pay raise in 2017 for judges would mean even more money for a num­ber of other of­fi­cials down the road, in­clud­ing the gov­er­nor, the lieu­tenant gov­er­nor, the at­tor­ney gen­eral and state law­mak­ers.

That means the ju­di­ciary’s pro­posal could leave state law­mak­ers in the un­usual po­si­tion of vot­ing them­selves a sec­ond pay raise be­fore the one they al­ready ap­proved even takes ef­fect. Here’s how it all shakes out: If the tied salaries were in ef­fect to­day, the gov­er­nor would make

$116,687, up from $90,000. And state law­mak­ers would make $38,116, up from $30,000.

With Hick­en­looper’s across-the-board pay raise for state em­ploy­ees, that would jump to $119,604 and $39,069, re­spec­tively. And with two years’ worth of judicial pay hikes added to it, the gov­er­nor would make $127,258, while law­mak­ers would be paid $41,569.

That rep­re­sents a raise of 39 to 41 per­cent over to­day’s salaries, which haven’t changed since 1999. The lieu­tenant gov­er­nor, at­tor­ney gen­eral, sec­re­tary of state and trea­surer would re­ceive sim­i­lar raises.

At the JBC hear­ing, law­mak­ers asked a few ques­tions about how the branch reached its salary pro­posal, but they gave lit­tle in­di­ca­tion whether they would en­dorse the pay hikes when the com­mit­tee be­gins craft­ing the state’s bud­get in 2017.

State Rep. Mil­lie Ham­ner, D-Dil­lon, a JBC mem­ber who spon­sored the 2015 bill ty­ing elected of­fi­cial pay to judges, said through a spokesman that the pro­posal would need to be ex­plored in the com­ing months.

One op­po­nent of the bill said the rip­ple ef­fects from this year’s judicial pay pro­posal are one of the rea­sons he voted against the 2015 mea­sure.

“It’s kind of a back-door salary in­crease for my fel­low leg­is­la­tors,” said State Rep. Justin Everett, R-Lit­tle­ton. “Sort of, ‘Noth­ing to see here.’ ”

But sup­port­ers of the mea­sure ar­gued that Colorado’s elected of­fi­cials are badly un­der­paid. The gov­er­nor, for in­stance, makes less than the ex­ec­u­tives of all but one other state, Maine, where gu­ber­na­to­rial pay is $70,000.

He also makes less than a Den­ver City Coun­cil mem­ber: They re­cently hiked their pay to $91,915.

Colorado law­mak­ers, though, make close to the na­tional av­er­age, ac­cord­ing to a 2016 Na­tional Con­fer­ence of State Leg­is­la­tures com­pen­sa­tion sur­vey.

Leg­isla­tive ef­forts to in­crease the pay for the statewide of­fi­cers — which is set by law — failed in 2013 and 2014.

Luis Toro, direc­tor of the Colorado Ethics Watch, said ty­ing elected of­fi­cial pay to judges may make fu­ture pay raises more po­lit­i­cally palat­able, which he sup­ports.

Un­der­pay­ing the state’s elected of­fi­cials, he said, “cre­ates an in­cen­tive to try to get a fi­nan­cial ad­van­tage in other ways. … To pay a fair liv­ing to these public of­fi­cials is ac­tu­ally a way to fight cor­rup­tion.”

And, he added, many law­mak­ers won’t ac­tu­ally be vot­ing on their own pay, be­cause the raises don’t take ef­fect un­til 2019.

“This gov­er­nor won’t ben­e­fit from it. So there may be some leg­is­la­tors that are still around in 2019, but with term lim­its a lot of them are go­ing to be gone,” he said. “I think the idea is they’ll all have to win another elec­tion to ben­e­fit from it.”

That re­mains true even for raises passed in the fu­ture. While judicial pay raises can take ef­fect im­me­di­ately, elected of­fi­cials’ salaries will only be read­justed ev­ery four years.

But, Toro added, it isn’t per­fect public pol­icy. “It’s more based on the po­lit­i­cal re­al­ity of Colorado,” he said.

Other states try to take pol­i­tics out of it en­tirely. Min­nesota vot­ers this year passed a bal­lot mea­sure tak­ing the power to set pay away from law­mak­ers and giv­ing it to an un­elected salary coun­cil. Ac­cord­ing to the NCSL, as many as 19 states have cre­ated com­pen­sa­tion com­mis­sions with vary­ing lev­els of power to set or rec­om­mend pay for state of­fi­cials.

In Mas­sachusetts, leg­isla­tive salaries are tied to an in­dex that goes up or down au­to­mat­i­cally based on the state’s me­dian house­hold in­come. A few states, like Colorado, tie pay to other state em­ploy­ees, ac­cord­ing to NCSL re­search.

One down­side to Colorado’s ap­proach: It could make it harder for law­mak­ers to con­sider judicial pay in­creases on their own mer­its. What hap­pens, for in­stance, if a law­maker be­lieves judges are un­der­paid, but feels that law­maker pay shouldn’t be in­creased?

For Everett, it’s a non­is­sue: He said he would have op­posed the judicial pay hikes even if they weren’t tied to the salaries of elected of­fi­cials. For one thing, he said the state has more press­ing needs, such as roads and ed­u­ca­tion fund­ing, which are peren­ni­ally un­der­funded. He also said state re­tire­ment and health ben­e­fits help make up for any pay dis­par­i­ties with the pri­vate sec­tor.

Ac­cord­ing to bud­get brief­ing doc­u­ments, the divi­sion com­mis­sioned two com­pen­sa­tion stud­ies over the last year. One, con­ducted by Se­gal Waters, said a 6.3 per­cent in­crease was war­ranted based on com­par­isons to peer states such as Arkansas, Min­nesota, Ne­braska, Ne­vada, Ten­nessee and Wash­ing­ton. The other study, by Fox Law­son, found that a 5 per­cent in­crease was “ap­pro­pri­ate and con­ser­va­tive” based on the salaries of com­pa­ra­ble public sec­tor po­si­tions in Colorado.

Rice’s pro­posal calls for a 6.3 per­cent raise over two years.

“We’re con­cerned, frankly, that if we don’t in­crease judge’s salaries that we’re go­ing to have some detri­men­tal ef­fects,” she said.

Since 2015, she said, the divi­sion saw an 11 to 15 per­cent de­cline in ap­pli­cants. And over the next seven years, 44 per­cent of the ju­di­ciary is ex­pected to re­tire.

“We think that if we can get to a mar­ket level, hope­fully we’ll be able to have and at­tract the kind of judges we want,” Rice said.

At the top of the pay scale, the chief jus­tice’s pay would in­crease from $176,799 to $192,816. At the bot­tom, county court judge pay would in­crease from $152,466 to $166,278.

Colorado judicial pay has risen steeply since the Great Re­ces­sion. Pay was flat from 2009 to 2012, then rose 3.6 per­cent, 9 per­cent and 9.71 per­cent over the next three years. Judges did not re­ceive a raise in the 2016 bud­get.

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