Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

State employees’ union says salaries too low, new revenues needed

With anti-incumbent sentiment growing and lawmakers in many states squeezing budgets, government employees have found themselves in the crosshairs, but that’s increasingly unfair and unwise, according to state government employee union leaders.

Speaking to University of Denver Sturm College of Law Strategic Issues Program panelists on Sept. 23, Robert Gibson, the executive director of the Colorado WINS coalition of unions, said there are flawed assumptions circulating with voters and fanned by some political groups. While there’s a call to slash state budgets and eliminate state workers, the reality is that state employees are enduring pay cuts and furlough days and working harder than ever.

Colorado WINS (Workers for Innovation and New Solutions) has about 3,500 of the state’s 62,000 employees as dues-paying members. Many workers, Gibson said, are already stretched thin covering positions that haven’t been filled because of hiring freezes.

“We continue to hear the Colorado state workforce is bloated and overpaid,” Gibson said.

In reality, he said, Colorado has fewer state employees per resident than any state in the Rocky Mountain region; state workers are paid less than private sector employees in the same fields; and as Colorado’s population has grown over the years, the state government workforce has dwindled.

There is no more fat to cut from state budgets despite calls for smaller government, said Mark Schwane, Colorado WINS general counsel.

“We like the idea of small government, but we never discuss what that is,” he said. “We are now at the point in state government where there is no general fund money to cut without cutting state services.”

So voters who want more cutting will have to decide what programs suffer, whether that’s schools, roads or human services, Gibson said.

Among the solutions Gibson suggested are developing new revenue streams and confronting head-on the erosion of public support for government workers.

Panel Director Jim Griesemer — with a background in public policy development and public financing, including terms as city manager in several cities across the country — said one thing governments can do is make it easier for the public to understand what they get for their tax money. Another beneficial change would be for governments to stop budgeting the way they always have and start developing a new philosophy, he said.

“What if the focus was not on spending but on how do we create value?” he asked. “What if we thought about government more as a way of creating value to citizens, much as a business creates value for its customers?”

Instead of having each department list line by line what it wants to buy or fund, Griesemer said the government as a whole should work to deliver valued services and express how it is spending in a way citizens understand. A level of transparency could show each person what they are getting for every tax dollar and what each person is paying for services.

While government has gone about budgeting in the same way for decades, the current fiscal crisis facing many states may actually provide the opportunity for change, Griesemer said.

The nonpartisan SIP panel of leaders in government, academia, business and public service will explore all facets of state governance in the coming year, from expenditures and funding to their relationships with federal and municipal governments. Additionally the panel will study the way sub-national governments work in other countries. Griesemer said he hopes to have findings and recommendations by next summer.

The Strategic Issues Panel’s next meeting will be Oct. 7 from 8 a.m.–noon on the sixth floor of DU’s Daniels College of Business. Panelists will hear from the Bruce Benson, president of the University of Colorado; Mary Mullarkey, chief justice of the Colorado Supreme Court; and Rico Munn, executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education. The public is welcome to attend. For more information, visit

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