Union group likens Republican amendment to Wisconsin tactics

Republican chair of the House Finance Committee Brian DelGrosso, Loveland, Wednesday moved to advance Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper’s budget agenda by pushing an amendment that would have nearly doubled the extra amount government employees are paying into their state pension in order to help shore up the state budget. With Colorado employee partnerships calling the move Wisconsinesque, it was a Republican crossing party lines that drove the final nail into the amendment’s coffin.

DelGrosso offered two amendments to expand a bill brought by the Joint Budget Committee to help eliminate Colorado’s $1.2 billion shortfall. The bill, as written, compels state employees to continue contributing an extra 2.5 percent of their paychecks into their Colorado Public Employees Retirement Association fund, removing that burden from the state during the next fiscal year. If the bill is signed into law, many government employees would continue to contribute 10.5 percent of their monthly earnings into the pension. Teachers and local government employees are not affected.

The bill’s most recent fiscal note shows the state saving $61.7 million in employee benefits while losing income tax revenue of $1,850,204.

After close to an hour of testimony against the bill from state employees concerned further reductions to income would only serve to exacerbate the tenuous condition of many of their lives, DelGrosso offered his amendments to expand those cuts. While stating he did not relish even continuing with the 2.5 percent increase in employee contributions, he said with the possibility of bringing a tax increase to the vote of the people too far off, increasing contributions to 4.5 percent seemed like one of the most humane options.

“We are looking at: do we want to make cuts to K-12 education, do we want to have to continue to lay off state workers, [do we want to do] several different things that are out there or do we want to ratchet this up another 2 percent and potentially save money for K-12 education…?” DelGrosso asked.

DelGrosso modeled his amendment after Hickenlooper’s plan that calls for state employees to contribute an additional 2 percent of their salary on top of the 2.5 percent they were already asked to pay last year.

Democrats including Representative Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, Niwot, said the bill was out of step with the established process of allowing the bipartisan joint budget committee to develop long bill recommendations and said DelGrosso’s process would create greater partisanship over the budget in a year when hard choices had to be made. Hullinghorst went on to say she disagreed with a bill that would more greatly affect people “at the lower end who are going into bankruptcy, who are going to food stamps. That is just shifting the costs. It is the government that pays for those bankruptcies and food stamps.” Hullinghorst said. “I don’t like this Mr. Chair, it is pushing more people into these situations.”

DelGrosso said he was simply trying to start the process of discussions not create partisan battle lines.

“We are starting the process by running this bill. I don’t feel that there is anything wrong with starting this process. The time to start making those cuts and the time to start making those difficult decisions has to start somewhere and I feel today is the day we will start trying to make real difficult decisions.”

Rep. Cindy Acree, R-Aurora, said while she sympathized with state workers, she would be voting for the amendment. “I think we are going to lose jobs if we don’t do this.”

Rep. Daniel Kagan, D-Englewood, disagreed with what he called a false choice between a PERA shift and furloughs.

“Do we lay off employees or do we furlough employees or do we increase the employee contributions? That is not the only way that this budget gap can be narrowed,” Kagan said. “This committee has voted for tax exemptions worth tens of millions of dollars. So I just want to put on record that I don’t agree with the choice between furloughs and a PERA shift.” Kagan earlier in the committee raised the same issue by asking a state employee if he would prefer furloughs, a PERA shift, or a 2.9 percent increase on soda.

The amendment would have passed if not for the vote of Rep. Keith Swerdfeger, R-Pueblo West, who, without comment, lent his vote to the Democratic opposition.

DelGrosso brought a second amendment that allows school districts and local governments to decide whether to make teachers and local government workers contribute an extra 2.5 percent of their wages in place of the government contribution to PERA. DelGrosso said the amendment would allow school districts to possibly save teachers’ jobs. Despite Hullinghorst’s concerns over the effects it would have to the unfunded liability of PERA, the amendment was passed on a party-line vote.

Colorado WINS, the state employees partnership, attacked DelGrosso’s amendments.

“What we saw today was an attempt to “Wisconsinize’ the bipartisan budget process.” Scott Wasserman, Colorado WINS political director, said. “In one case cooler heads prevailed and in the other, they failed.”

The bill passed out of committee 8-5.

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