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State workers rally at the Colorado Capitol as Gov. Jared Polis and Democratic lawmakers on Friday, Jan. 10, 2020, announced legislation allowing them to collectively bargain. (Moe Clark, The Colorado Sun)

Colorado lawmakers will try again to pass legislation to allow the state’s roughly 30,000 employees to collectively bargain after years of falling short

The big difference in 2020? The effort has Gov. Jared Polis’ blessing.

Polis and Democratic lawmakers rolled out their plans at a news conference on Friday at the Capitol, flanked by state workers.

“I am so excited that Gov. Polis is supporting our bill,” said Skip Miller, president of Colorado WINS, the state workers union. “This bill is going to be life-changing for state workers.”

Polis promised during his 2018 gubernatorial campaign to work to pass legislation allowing state employees to collectively bargain, but had concerns about the budget effects of a bill that would have done so in 2019. That measure ultimately failed. 

“The concept was one we never had a problem with,” Polis said Friday. “Figuring out the details in any piece of legislation is always very important. … I wanted to make sure this was good for the taxpayers, would make state government more efficient.”

Polis, a Democrat, worked with Colorado WINS and other groups over the summer to craft a bill for the 2020 session. His staff says the legislation didn’t dramatically change from last year’s version and that the alterations were mainly technical.

“The bill, in broad strokes, is similar to what it was last year, but we tightened up a couple of things — mandatory subjects of bargaining among them and processes — to ensure that everyone has the right voice in our bargaining process,” said Jacki Cooper Melmed‏, Polis’ chief legal counsel. “Beyond that, the changes are relatively small and technical.”

State workers have a union, but Colorado law prohibits them from banding together to negotiate  higher wages through collective bargaining. A majority of states allow for collective bargaining of their state employees.

The bill unveiled Friday would not allow state workers to strike, but Colorado WINS says it does allow them to put political pressure on lawmakers to get better pay and benefits. “We have power because we exist in every single corner of the state and we have legislators up here from every single corner of the state,” said Hilary Glasgow, executive director of Colorado WINS.

Cooper Melmed said the legislation also requires the state to bargain with state workers in “good faith.”

“This was a long effort,” Polis said. “We came in at the tail end. This is a result of many, many years of hard work.”

Gov. Jared Polis speaks at a news conference at the Colorado Capitol on Friday, Jan. 10, 2019, announcing legislation that would allow state employees to collectively bargain. (Moe Clark, The Colorado Sun)

Senate President Leroy Garcia, a Pueblo Democrat and lead sponsor of the collective bargaining bill, says he hopes the measure will give state workers a voice. “Right now, the unfortunate reality is that one in five of Colorado state jobs remain unfilled, forcing state employees to work multiple jobs (and) unconventional hours,” he said.

Republicans are expected to put up a fierce fight against the legislation, saying that it threatens to weigh down the state’s limited budget. 

Sen. Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican who helps write the state budget as a member of the legislature’s Joint Budget Committee, says he thinks the state’s workforce already has good benefits. Low turnover in a tight job market, he says, suggests that they are happy with their compensation.

“I just don’t see the need to go that step,” he said. “I don’t see what it will gain our state employees.”

Rankin also points out that collective bargaining could have ripple effects across other legislative priorities.

“Let’s say that they bargain for higher wages, where does the money come from?” he asked. “Does it come from teacher salaries? Does it come from transportation? We listen to department over department over there and they all have a good case for needing more money. I would invite anyone who thinks we need collective bargaining to come listen to the Joint Budget Committee, listen to how hard it is to make those priorities. And then we are going to negotiate over salaries?”

Democrats, who are in the legislative majority, don’t need Republican support to pass bills.

State Rep. Daneya Esgar, a Pueblo Democrat who chairs the Joint Budget Committee and is a lead sponsor of the collective bargaining bill, said there are provisions written into the measure to make sure budget problems don’t arise.

Skip Miller, president of Colorado WINS, the state employees union, speaks at a news conference at the Colorado Capitol on Friday, Jan. 10, 2019, announcing legislation that would allow state employees to collectively bargain. (Moe Clark, The Colorado Sun)

“If there were a raise proposed, the General Assembly would have a say (to determine) if we had the money,” she said. “We will always be protecting the budget.”

The bill, if passed, would allow for a single statewide bargaining unit for all state employees. Glasgow said Colorado WINS doesn’t have a specific pay increase goal, but that state workers want “a bunch percent” raise. 

In July, state employees got a 3% raise across-the-board.

The collective bargaining bill will be introduced in the Colorado House in the coming days.

Moe K. Clark

Moe Clark is a former Colorado Sun writer. She left the publication in June 2020. Email: Twitter: @moe_clark15

Jesse Paul

The Colorado Sun — Desk: 720-432-2229 Jesse Paul is a political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is...