Vail Law: Colorado legislators should be paid more
Vail, CO, Colorado
What do Colorado’s legislators do? That’s intended to be neither rhetorical nor sarcastic. What they do is lmake the laws we all must live both with and by, in the Vail Valley and across the state.
The number of new laws adds up quickly. If each of the state’s 100 legislators passes three bills per session, that’s 300 new laws per year. Since we’re all going to be burdened in one way or another with all these laws, what we want – presumably – is the best and brightest to guide us, to make these laws. We want legislators who are responsive and accountable to us, the voters. This isn’t always the case. What we often get is mediocrity, or worse. Part of this, at least in Colorado, is that mother’s milk of politics, money.
The governor of Colorado makes $90,000 a year. Not bad, but nothing to brag to the other governors about. Poor Bill Ritter is the fourth-worst paid governor in the U.S. and makes almost 40 percent less than he did in his old government job as Denver District Attorney. There are 1,729 state workers who make more than the governor.
Now, $90,000 a year ain’t bad, particularly when you consider the perks that come with the job, and it’s still roughly double the average pay for a worker in Colorado, but the legislature is another story. Colorado legislators make $30,000 per year plus a $99 per diem when the legislature is in session (try getting a hotel and feeding yourself in Denver on $99 per day.)
Fleeing the gold dome
In part because of the low pay, Colorado legislators are leaving in droves. Most are retiring from public service and many are leaving the legislature before their terms are up. When they leave early, their successors are appointed, not elected. In fact, nearly one in six sitting house members and almost one-third of sitting senators gained their seats by appointment rather than election. That’s bad for democracy.
Special elections to fill a vacant seat are expensive, so what Colorado does – along with a handful of other states – is fill vacancies by appointment, using the recommendations of special committees established by the political parties. If, for example, a Republican representative retires mid-term, the Republican vacancy committee for that district will fill the term with a Republican of their choice. It works the same way for Democrats. In this case, a candidate must convince only a handful of committee members, rather than the voters, of his or her suitability for the office. While efficient and fiscally conservative, the voters are left out at least until the next election and there are those who will argue that the appointed incumbent then enters that election with an unfair advantage.
Denver’s 31st Senate District is a case study in how the system can go awry. Sen. Jennifer Veiga – Colorado’s first openly gay state lawmaker – was appointed to the seat in 2003. She announced her retirement from the seat in April, 2009 after winning reelection in 2008. Her successor, Pat Steadman, was appointed and will serve out Veiga’s term until 2012. The 31st Senate District has not seen a truly open contest since 1977.
More bucks, better bang?
What does it mean when your legislators are appointed? Nothing, really. Appointed legislators may be just as effective as elected ones and maybe more so. But appointment lacks responsiveness to the voters in the way democracy intended.
Part of what might keep legislators in their seats is a pay raise. Two-thirds of Colorado legislators leave politics altogether when they leave office, for whatever reason. Part of this has to be the challenge of supporting a family on a legislator’s salary.
A raise makes sense. It would draw a wider spectrum of candidates to run for office. And a deeper pool might well translate into new ideas, new energy and new solutions to what are a myriad of difficult challenges.
Colorado’s 2009 budget is $18.7 billion. If each legislator’s salary were increased to say, $90,000, the net effect upon the budget would be less than 0.3 percent. If such an investment spawned new, creative ways of thinking and kept the legislators tied more to the electorate, the fractional expense may well be worth it.
Especially in these times of fiscal austerity, Colorado’s legislators should be paid more. Perhaps a better paid legislator might translate to a better caliber of legislative thinker. And that might not only better serve democracy, but, in the long run, save us all a little scratch.
Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the Bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley. His practice areas include: business and commercial transactions, real estate and development, homeowner’s associations, family law and divorce and civil litigation. He may be heard on Wednesday nights at 7 p.m. on KZYR radio (97.7 FM) as host of “Community Focus.” Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at his e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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