For more than two thousand years legislatures have found it necessary to provide pensions to public workers. Otherwise, it would prove nearly impossible to attract qualified workers willing to perform many of the thankless tasks all societies leave to government. Despite the allure of plundering the provinces, the Roman Senate guaranteed enlisting legionnaires a plot of land, a separation bonus to build a farmhouse and a lifetime pension following 25 years of military service.
Today police forces in Mexico have proven equally resourceful when revenues run short to fund their payrolls. They routinely throw up roadblocks and impose cash “fines” on every vehicle until the shortfall is closed. This taxation at the point of service captures economic efficiency but raises troubling questions about fairness.
Government employees are frequently smeared with the sins of their political bosses. I can assure you, however, that no lobbyist distributes Broncos tickets to snow plow drivers during a 3:00 AM blizzard. The men and women who climb out of bed to clear Colorado’s highways provide a bargain service to taxpayers. As do our state troopers, prison guards, therapists, nurses and physician assistants at Veterans’ Homes and regional centers for the disabled. The purchasing power of their take home pay has been shrinking for nearly a decade.
At the Department of Agriculture a handful of market managers sell billions of dollars of Colorado farm products each year for salaries the financial industry would regard as laughable. Other workers perform jobs most of us would never accept. Several years ago I represented an employee at a group home who was being disciplined for mishandling a case of “rectal digging.” Ask yourself whether you might be willing to accept this job for $500 a week?
Nonetheless, thousands of Coloradans choose public service for their career paths. They find personal satisfaction in keeping the rest of us safe, healthy and comfortable. They will never become millionaires or cash in skyrocketing stock options provided by their employer. They will struggle to pay their bills, raise their families and send their kids to college like many of their neighbors. They will pay their taxes and rely on politicians to keep the promises made to them when they were hired. After 30 or more years, they will rely on their Public Employee Retirement Association (PERA) pensions rather than social security to provide a modest but dignified retirement.
These are the “PERAsites” that critics claim are scheming to rip off Colorado taxpayers. With PERA in financial distress, stabilization of the plan is required. Both retirees and active employees understand this. They are willing to accept the sacrifices required to guarantee what will become smaller pensions. They will pay more, work longer and receive less than they were promised when they were hired. In fact, they will shoulder more than 90 percent of the costs of fixing PERA. This isn’t because they haven’t been doing their part. They have. It’s because the Colorado Legislature simply doesn’t have sufficient money to fill the hole they’ve dug.
Colorado voters created a modern civil service system nearly a century ago as a protection against political patronage and incompetence. In a world beset by pandemics, financial chicanery and terrorism government needs to attract smart, capable workers. The Legislature has established “comparable” compensation with the private sector as its standard for achieving this objective.
Yet state salaries lag 6-14 percent behind the private marketplace. Healthcare benefits are sub-standard and next year’s salaries are scheduled for a two and a half percent cut. The cost of resolving the PERA shortfall will widen this gap another 3-5 percent. Instead of serving as a model employer, the Colorado Legislature appears to be gambling that sheer economic desperation will keep warm bodies on its payroll. If state employees have learned little else, it should be that when economic times get tough both Democratic and Republican administrations will move swiftly to balance state budgets on their backs.
Miller Hudson is a former state representative from Denver who served five years as executive director of the Colorado Association of Public Employees.