Judges seek steep pay hikes
Colorado top elected officials also would benefit since increases are linked
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.