Should we pay our Colorado leaders more? |

Should we pay our Colorado leaders more?

Steve Lynn
photo illustration by Amanda Swanson

Rohn Robbins might have run for the Colorado state House ” if only he could afford to live with the $30,000 salary.

Robbins, an Edwards attorney who ran as a Democrat, could not afford to dedicate enough time to the House seat while making $30,000 a year and, at the same time, pay for college for his sons and niece.

Colorado ranks 18th in salaries for legislators, but pay has grown about 6 percent, up from about $28,140 in 1975. Some legislators say their salaries are adequate, but others say the pay pushes out talented people and makes the Legislature less diverse.

Only three classes of people can afford to participate in the state Legislature: people who are independently wealthy, those with spouses who can support them and young people without families, Robbins said.

A pay raise would attract middle-class people and working professionals, Robbins said.

“It would broaden the field,” Robbins said.

But Beaver Creek Republican Muhammad Ali Hasan, who is running for House District 56 (which includes Eagle County), said $30,000 is around the average salary of public school teachers, and the Colorado House is in session only four months.

“For that reason, I think $30,000 is plenty and if one needs more, then there’s eight months to pursue other routes of revenue,” Hasan said.

Hasan lives in a Beaver Creek home that he and his sisters own through a trust fund set up by his parents. Most of his money comes from investments given to him by his parents and political commentary he has done on television, he has said.

(Eagle County School District pays closer to $40,000 for new teachers.)

When adjusted for inflation, legislators’ salaries in 28 states declined between 1975 and 2005, according to a recent study by The Council of State Governments, a Kentucky-based nonprofit that serves lawmakers.

In 22 states where salaries increased during the same 30-year period, salaries still did not keep up with inflation, according to the report.

Among “professional legislatures” where lawmakers legislate year-round, California legislators made $110,880 annually, the most of any state. Among the “citizen legislatures” where lawmakers work part-time, New Hampshire legislators made the least, $100 annually.

On top of Colorado’s $30,000 salary, legislators receive up to $45 a day, or “per diem,” if they live in the Denver metro area, and they get up to 32 cents per mile for travel. They get $99 a day if they live outside Denver.

Robbins entered the race when Democratic Party officials were looking for someone to take Rep. Dan Gibbs’ place as representative for House District 56, which includes Eagle, Summit and Lake counties.

Gibbs, Eagle County’s former Democratic state representative, was appointed in November to fill the place of Colorado Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald, who resigned to run for U.S. Congress.

Robbins thinks the Colorado lawmakers should work year-round and be paid as such.

With 65 state representatives and 35 senators making $30,000 each year, they collectively make $3 million, Robbins said.

If lawmakers were paid $100,000, they would collectively make $10 million dollars, a tiny fraction of the state’s $17 billion operating budget this fiscal year.

“That’s an investment worth making,” Robbins said.

People need smart, educated legislators, yet people should not be attracted to the job just for the salary, said New New Wallace, vice chair of the Eagle County Democratic Party.

“It’s kind of a Catch 22,” Wallace said.

Young legislators like Sen. Gibbs can afford to live on those salaries because they don’t have families to support, Wallace said.

“They’re political monks,” she said.

Gibbs comes from a modest background. Both of his parents were teachers, and he recalls living off white-label-brand generic food as a kid.

He doesn’t live extravagantly nowadays, and he makes extra cash as a wildland firefighter during summer.

Still, he enjoys seeing the changes he has made, such as tighter chain law restrictions he helped pass that keep drivers on Interstate 70 safer, he said.

“At this point, I’m really satisfied,” he said.

Gibbs typically spends most of his time in Denver and some time in Silverthorne, where he lives. He’s unmarried and does not have kids.

“If I did have kids, it would make it twice as hard,” Gibbs said.

Rep. Al White, a Republican who lives in Hayden, has owned ski shops, a bike shop and a 25-room ski lodge in Winter Park in the past. White lives off his assets from those businesses, he said.

“Had we not done that, I wouldn’t have been able to run for the Legislature,” White said.

White is a candidate for Senate District 8, whose territory includes Eagle County, and he’s running to fill the seat now occupied by Steamboat resident Jack Taylor. Taylor is term-limited.

As a state representative of House District 57, White makes less than he made at age 30, he said.

Even though the legislative session runs four months, White travels in his district ” Garfield, Grand, Jackson, Moffat, Rio Blanco and Routt counties ” the rest of the year to talk with constituents, he said.

“It makes it difficult for people to have jobs outside the Legislature,” White said.

White had talked to several Republicans to replace his seat in the state House. Many of those people told him they couldn’t afford to serve in the Legislature, he said.

Republican Randy Baumgardner is seeking office in a race against Democratic candidate Robert Hagenbuch of Phippsburg to fill the House District 57 seat.

Most legislators work in the state Senate and House for the right reasons, but White understands why voters might not entertain a pay raise.

People see news reports of legislators such as Democratic state Rep. Michael Garcia, of Aurora, and Republican state Rep. Doug Bruce, of Colorado Springs, and develop a cynicism toward politicians, White said.

Garcia, the House assistant majority leader, resigned in February amid reports that he exposed himself to a lobbyist, according to the Denver Post.

In January, Bruce became the first legislator in Colorado history to be censured by the House when he kicked a newspaper photographer for taking his picture during a prayer, according to The Associated Press.

“Citizens tend to look at that and generalize and think we’re all a part of the same fabric, which is the furthest thing from the truth,” White said.

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