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Caldara: Why we should shorten Colorado’s legislative session

Good help is hard to find.

By design or by mere inertia from simpler times, the Colorado legislative system hasn’t many trappings for state legislators. Except for those in the position of party leadership, most legislators don’t even have nice offices. Many just have cubicles, which makes them very accessible to us and is humbling for them.

A legislator doesn’t have much of an office staff either. Often several legislators share the same assistant and rely on volunteers to help out. But like the nicer offices, if you’re in leadership there’s full-time paid staff. And then sometimes more.

As reported by Colorado Politics, some partisan staffers have found extra cash from outside — but very related — sources.

Jim Pfaff gets paid $90,000 a year to be chief of staff for House Minority Leader Pat Neville. Beyond that, he received $4,000 for unspecified consulting work from Colorado Liberty PAC, a committee run by Pat Neville’s brother Joe.

Illegal? Nope. What state employees do outside of work is their own business. If Pfaff were driving Uber on weekends, no one would know or care. The difference is Uber doesn’t have to disclose it to the secretary of state for all to see. A political independent expenditure committee does.

The Democratic echo chamber didn’t jump all over this apparent “conflict of interest.” They were surprisingly silent, because well, pot meet kettle.

Staff member for the Democrats, James Lucero, received $2,800 from the Committee to Elect Leroy Garcia. He’s now the paid full-time chief of staff for Senate President Garcia. An assistant to the speaker of the house made extra cash from the committee to elect her boss, among other examples

Is this ethical? So long as the information is publicly known, and there is some media left to report it, voters can decide at the ballot box if they want a legislator who allows his partisan staff to make such side money.

Unlike non-partisan legislative staff, those career workers whose jobs don’t depend on elections, partisan staff who work directly for politicians have no limit to their pay. They get paid what their elected boss decides. And over the last few years, top partisan staffer pay has gone up by about 23 percent compared to 5 percent for non-partisan staff.

The problem is the bigger the state government gets, the bigger the politics in and around it gets, the more paid staff those in power want. And outside interests will always be willing to help pay for it.

One way to curb the demand for more and higher-paid staff is to have less for them to do, fewer bills to shuffle through the process, fewer committee meetings to endure. At least in the private sector, less work means fewer workers. We can hope it’s the same in the legislature.

It would have a benefit for their bosses too.

While one’s ego can get gorged working as a state senator or representative, one’s wallet doesn’t necessarily get fat. They get paid $40,242 a year. It wasn’t so long ago they gave themselves a sizable pay raise and put their pay on autopilot to grow.

For a 120-day legislative session that’s not a bad wage, especially when you add in their per diem. However, if we really wanted to give our elected officials and their staff a pay raise, we’d just shorten their legislative session. We’ve done it before, lowering from 160 days back in 1988. Many states have 90- and 60-day sessions. Georgia does it in 40. And several states only hold session every other year.

You know how basketball games are always decided in the last five minutes. It’s like that in the Capitol too. The important work of a legislative session always happens in the last few weeks. The legislature’s work can easily get done in half the current time, with half the number of bills introduced.

We want our citizen legislators back at their “real” jobs in their home districts. That’s what citizen legislator means. We want people who work in our communities, not in the Denver political machine. We want a system where we lend them to the gold dome, not the other way around.

Let’s do the opposite of Washington. Let’s keep the trappings of office in Colorado minor.

And for the record, I’d shorten basketball games too.

Jon Caldara is president of the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver.

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