DENVER – While more than 500,000 unemployment claims have been filed and Colorado lawmakers are working to cut $3.3 billion from the state’s budget, that didn’t stop Lieutenant Governor Dianne Primavera’s double-dipping salary from making it out of the House of Representatives for approval to continue another year.
With the passage of the long bill by the House on Wednesday, the Senate will get its turn at amendments to the bill that includes massive cuts to higher education and K-12 education, among other things.
But a position Gov. Jared Polis created for Primavera in January 2019, just days after being sworn in, with a generous salary and benefits over and above her regular lieutenant governor pay package, remains intact, and it appears Primavera may continue collecting double pay for a job run mostly by the people who work under her.
It was the third executive order Polis signed, creating the Office of Saving People Money (OSPM), and naming Primavera its executive director. The office is charged with studying and addressing the rising cost of health care in Colorado. Polis called it a priority in his efforts to change health care policy in Colorado.
Those changes thus far include a reinsurance program, which Democrats passed last year, and legal importing of prescriptions from Canada, also passed last year. A public health insurance option was on track to pass this year, but with the economy largely shut down over reaction to coronavirus, it was pulled when legislators went back to work last week.
“The Office of Saving People Money will form the beating heart of our efforts to reduce patient costs for hospital stays and expenses, improve price transparency, lower the price of prescription drugs, and make health insurance more affordable,” said Polis said during his State of the Union address in 2019.
Republican legislators have referred to OSPM as an advisory office for Democrats policy development.
The role of lieutenant governor has been debated for years, with many arguing with little responsibility, it’s not a necessary expense for the state and even suggesting it be eliminated, including former three-term Democrat Gov. Dick Lamm and former Republican Lt. Gov. Ted Strickland.
Most recently, the debate came up when Former Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia stepped down in 2015 to take on the role as president of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.
Now Republicans are crying foul that the lieutenant governor is being paid two salaries and benefit packages for no real increase in time spent on the job, especially during a time when every penny counts in the state budget.
Republicans in the House introduced an amendment to the budget that would have cut Primavera’s salary. It was killed by Democrats. Republicans in the Senate are also expected to introduce an amendment to make some change to the office.
Senate President Leroy Garcia did not return requests for comment.
Complete Colorado filed an open records request with Primavera’s office to get a better idea on what she does in both roles — and perhaps more important — how much time per week Primavera spends on two titles that earn her $168,000 a year in base salary and another $44,500 in benefits.
Under the state Constitution, the lieutenant governor’s job is to act in the absence of the governor. State Statute outlines the job as the liaison between the state and the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs.
In this role, Primavera earns a base salary of $7,780 per month along with about $360 a month in dental, health, life and disability benefits. She earns another near $1,600 a month in Public Employee Retirement Account (PERA) benefits.
According to her calendar since August of 2019, in addition to regular meetings with Tribal leaders, Primavera spends much of her time traveling the state, as well as on a long-distance trip to Australia representing Colorado on various health care and educational issues.
Time spent in her role as director of the Office of Saving People Money, however, was not as easy to define, and identifying her duties was a bit more complicated. Entries in her calendar are sometimes vague and unclear if she is acting in her role as lieutenant governor or director of OSPM.
She is also double-booked many times. Therefore, Complete Colorado not only considered specific OSPM entries as time spent on that role, but also any time that was spent on anything with a connection to any health issue. In the cases of double-booking, it was assumed she was acting as director of OSPM.
With all those considerations, Primavera only spends, on average, 22 hours a month in her role as director of OSPM, where she makes a base salary of $6,210.29 per month, about $290 in dental, health, life and disability benefits and $1,262 in PERA benefits. The office also has two employees and a total budget of $230,000.
Primavera’s office did not return request for comment.
Sen. John Cooke, R-Greeley said the office is shameful. He questioned how active she really is considering there are two others actually running the office.
“It’s a ridiculous title,” Cooke said. “Her job is lieutenant governor. He gave that to her so she could make more money. We should cut it back. I don’t care if it’s only $100,000 of the $3.3 billion we have to cut. People are losing their jobs. Every little bit helps.”