Gov. John Hickenlooper seems ready to take a bite out of one of the bigger issues for a chief executive in Colorado. He announced earlier this month that he’s begun to look at options to reform Colorado’s state personnel system.
Colorado’s personnel system was inserted into our state constitution in 1918. Like many other governments of the period, it was established to fight back against the Tammany Hall style of corruption that plagued governments throughout the country. It was crafted to make it virtually impossible for politicians to reward their supporters with political patronage.
Through the years, it has worked to limit how governors and other politicians in our state fill the jobs that oversee how state government operates. Colorado’s governor can, with Senate confirmation, choose the members of his Cabinet and several full-time members of boards and commissions such as the Public Utilities Commission and the Parole Board. Additionally, he can hire the relatively few people who make up the staff of the governor’s office. After that, employees, who maintain their jobs regardless of who is governor, are hired through a merit process that leaves little opportunity for political interference.
A kind of hybrid model between merit and political appointments has been instituted, which is called Senior Executive Service. Up to 125 senior-level managers give up some of their merit system rights for higher pay and serve with annual contracts that are under the control of Cabinet officers. Hickenlooper ordered all SES positions to be opened and had the incumbents reapply to keep their jobs last spring. While it didn’t lead to much turnover, it showed that our new governor was interested in making access to high-level government positions available to more people.
It will be a heavy lift to change the personnel system. Because it is embedded within our constitution, it will take two-thirds of both the state House and Senate just to get something on the ballot. The last time such an attempt was made in 2004, voters by a 60-percent-to-40-percent margin defeated Referendum A, a relatively modest proposal that would have given the governor 140 new political appointments and put additional flexibility into the personnel system, after the measure was placed on the ballot by the legislature.
Compared with his peers across the country, Colorado’s governor has limited powers. It makes imminent sense to pass personnel reforms to give him additional authority. However, with a public demeanor that has given us both the Tea Party and Occupy movements, it will be difficult to persuade voters to scale back merit protections. Hickenlooper is to be commended for raising a difficult issue. The legislature should work with him to craft a proposal to send to voters, and we all should give it every consideration if it makes its way onto our 2012 ballot.
Greg Romberg is president of Romberg and Associates, a government relations and public affairs firm. He lives in Evergreen with his wife, Laurie, and three daughters.