Kim Bodin works nights and weekends as a state prison nurse, and she hasn’t had a raise in years.
Now the 54-year-old is watching nervously as Democrats and Republicans talk about changing how state employees can be hired and fired.
“There is a big move in this country to make people who work for government the fall guy for this economy,” said Bodin, a nurse at the Department of Corrections’ Denver Reception and Diagnostic Center. She makes about $37,000 and hasn’t had a raise in four years while her health insurance premiums and retirement contributions have risen.
Some 30,000 Colorado employees like Bodin are waiting to see how Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper wants to change rules for employees, called the state personnel system. Hickenlooper has talked about making Colorado more competitive and flexible in how it handles human relations.
In his annual address to lawmakers last week, Hickenlooper criticized Colorado’s personnel policies as “antiquated” and said he’d submit a proposal to change them.
“The state constitution is riddled with personnel rules and administrative procedures that are obsolete and should be reformed,” Hickenlooper said.
Hickenlooper hasn’t said what he wants to change. State employees think he may be talking about rules forbidding the hiring of out-of-state residents for certain jobs, or seniority rules that allow senior employees to “bump” newer ones in some cases if a job is eliminated.
Republicans seem eager to reduce what the state spends on its employees, even though only seven states have fewer state employees per capita than Colorado, according to 2011 state budget data compiled by The Associated Press.
“Obviously one of the biggest drivers of our state budget is personnel, so anything we can do to review that is something we should do,” said Republican Sen. Scott Renfroe of Greeley.
Changes wouldn’t be as simple as putting a bill through Colorado’s Legislature. Colorado is one of five states with major human-resources guidelines in its state constitution. That means any change would require a two-thirds vote in the divided Legislature, followed by approval by a majority of voters this fall.
Coloradans have rejected previous attempts to change Progressive Era personnel regulations that require new hires be made “according to merit and fitness.” In 2004, a personnel overhaul supported by former Republican Gov. Bill Owens was defeated by more than 60 percent of voters.
Scott Wasserman, executive director of a union that represents thousands of the types of employees Hickenlooper is talking about, said he isn’t ready to reject Hickenlooper’s proposals outright.
But Wasserman said that state employees need a broad revision of personnel rules, especially 1990s-era “pay for performance” standards that resulted in few getting raises, even in cases where employees had stellar reviews.
Wasserman argued that state employees also want to make sure politicians know what they risk if the constitution’s protections go away. For example, he said, state employees are ineligible for severance pay, and they see the “bump” rule as a needed protection for workers in their 50s who otherwise would get axed in favor of younger, cheaper employees.
“I don’t think we’re asking for the moon here. We’re asking for reasonable steps at reform that include employees in the conversation,” Wasserman said.
The governor says he’s still in talks with unions about what changes he’ll suggest.
Hickenlooper’s not alone. Leslie Scott, executive director of the Kentucky-based National Association of State Personnel Executives, said other states are looking for efficiencies by tackling their human relations policies. She was generally supportive of the effort in Colorado.
“The state of the economy has forced states to look at changes to their systems, whether it’s adding more flexibility, looking at benefits, pensions, things like that,” Scott said.
Hickenlooper is making an effort to avoid divisive labor battles that sparked mobs of protesters in Ohio and Wisconsin, where Republican governors sought to undo employee protections and collective bargaining rights. Wasserman said Hickenlooper seems willing to compromise with state employees.
“We’ll be much easier to work with on the personnel agenda if it’s a two-way street,” Wasserman said.
The uncertainty is deeply troublesome to 64-year-old Rita Uhler, a 12-year employee who teaches decision-making skills at the Sterling Correctional Facility in northeast Colorado. Uhler said she hopes lawmakers think beyond immediate savings if they change constitutional employee regulations.
“You change the constitution, it changes a lot of stuff permanently,” Uhler said. “I’d hate to see them throw away the few protections a state employee has.”