Mesa State bill falls in Senate committee

The Colorado Statesman

Mesa State’s effort to free itself of the state personnel system came to a halt on Wednesday, when the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee voted along party lines to postpone House Bill 1007 indefinitely.

The outcome of Wednesday’s hearing was seen by many at the Capitol as a foregone conclusion. The bill failed to get a single Democratic vote in the House, either in the Economic and Business Development Committee, or on the House floor, where it passed 33-31 (with one Democrat absent) on Feb. 10.

Democrats on the State Affairs Committee made their feelings about the bill known early to its sponsor, Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction. Committee Chair Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, told King that his problem with the bill is the possibility that other institutions might want to follow Mesa’s lead. “You can’t go alone,” something Heath said he had already explained to Mesa State President Tim Foster (Foster was not at the hearing Wednesday).

As introduced, HB 1007 would allow the classified employees in the state personnel system at Mesa State to vote on whether they would remain classified or become at-will, exempt employees. The bill was amended on the House floor to address concerns about impacts of such a move to the Public Employees’ Retirement Association (PERA), and to allow new employees, who would not be part of the state personnel system, the option of joining PERA.

Testifying against HB 1007, Ron Hall, a classified employee at Mesa State, said that the bill offers the classified employees a “false choice,” and said the bill was initiated by the campus administration in December 2009. “We did not initiate this,” he said. As to the benefits of staying classified, Hall said it was because of the state system and what it stands for. “And you have a job,” said Heath.

Tom Orrell, another Mesa State employee, said the classified system was created to protect taxpayers from corruption in hiring. HB 1007 “would strip away those protections and open the door to nepotism and cronyism in hiring,” Orrell said. Explaining the process for his hiring, Orrell said the classified system worked. “It identified the best person [for the job] and delivered for students, parents and taxpayers.”

Those who testified against HB 1007 were joined by nine employees from several other state colleges and universities: Metropolitan State College of Denver, Adams State and the University of Colorado-Boulder.

A classified employee from CU-Boulder and a member of Colorado WINS, one of two state employee unions, testified that even though the bill was only about Mesa State, it would impact him as well. Paul Boni told the committee that “Mesa State is not an island.” Passing HB 1007 “will set a precedent in state law, and other colleges and universities will follow suit. The state personnel system is worth preserving.”

Derek Wagner, director of special projects and strategic initiatives at Mesa State, spoke for the administration in favor of the bill. He disputed Hall’s account, saying that the classified staff had come to the administration on the issue. “Our role was to provide information on both systems,” and the conversation came about after several years of no salary increases and concerns about PERA.

“You can’t just pick and choose,” Heath said. “You can’t change on your own… I just don’t think we can pull Mesa out. The whole thing rides together or it falls together.”

Jeanne Herring, a 16-year classified employee at Mesa State, told the committee the classified system is broken and that because of years of poorly funded pay for performance and lack of salary increases, paychecks are going backwards. “We’ve seen what’s on the other side,” she said, referring to promotions and salary increases for exempt employees.

The president of Mesa State’s classified staff council took ownership for the bill, but said Foster had “mentored” him as he worked on the bill. Rick Fox, a five-year employee at the college, said classified employees are envious of their at-will colleagues and want the choice to come out of the system. Although a 2004 state law allowed many positions to come out of the system, and thousands have been exempted statewide, many positions are not eligible for exemption. Fox said he realized that a change in law would be necessary and started working on the bill himself. He said the bill was changed several times, both at the college and at the state Capitol, in order to address concerns regarding PERA and how the vote would be conducted.

“Let us be the canary in the coal mine,” Fox pleaded, the test case for whether this would work. “I’d like to be able to choose to be an at-will employee.”

He also said the classified system doesn’t respond quickly enough to fill vacancies, and that sometimes those vacancies take a year to fill. “How does it benefit anyone for the system to take so long?”

Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, said he appreciated the changes made to HB 1007 in the House, especially regarding PERA, which he said had been his major concern. But being at-will is not necessarily attractive to people, and HB 1007 would open the college to nepotism and cronyism. Bacon said he was not willing to “open the floodgates” to get rid of the classified system. “I know of the flaws; we can repair the flaws.”

Bacon also said the conversation is not just about Mesa State. “It requires a greater conversation rather than an experiment to see if it works.” Other colleges and universities have the same system, and if changes are to be made, it needs to be done intelligently rather than piecemeal. Maybe its time will come, he added.

Fox pleaded with the Democrats for their support, noting that nepotism is not prohibited in the state personnel rules.

However, while the Department of Personnel and Administration confirmed in a 2005 technical guideline that nepotism is not prohibited in rules or policies, it is prohibited in state law. The DPA guide also noted a 1986 Colorado Court of Appeals decision regarding a nepotism situation, where an applicant for a state job unsuccessfully sued the state because he was not hired for a job where his father would have been his supervisor.

“If this is the end of the bill, let it not be the end of the conversation,” Fox told the committee. Fox appeared to take the loss personally, saying “I’ve failed. I need to try harder and I’ll be back.”

King, in one last attempt to save his bill, said he didn’t see Mesa State as an island, he saw them as leaders. Maybe “they’re so out in front as a leader they’re seen as being alone.” This problem isn’t going away, King vowed. If it isn’t Mesa State this year, it will be CU next year and Colorado State University the next year, he said.

King told The Colorado Statesman after the hearing that eventually a bill may come to pull the entire classified system out of higher ed. The same thing happened in 2004, when Foster was at the helm of the state higher education system, but that bill failed in the Senate.

“We’re dealing with a personnel system that’s not serving personnel well,” King said, and suggested more compromises could be found.

Orrell acknowledged the fight probably isn’t over, but said the real fight should be to fix the system so that it works for everyone. If that happens, classified employees won’t have to worry about people trying to get out of the system. “The conversation will focus on fixing it, rather than throwing it away.”