A new report by the Common Sense Institute reveals how one-party control of Colorado has ballooned the growth in state government as private sector employment has stagnated.
According to the report, the number of people employed by the government of Colorado has grown nearly eight times as much as private employment since the state fell under single-party control in 2019.
This represents a stark divergence from the preceding years where, under a divided legislature, growth in private employment far outpaced the increase in government jobs. The change manifested after the 2018 election.
Starting in 2019, the Democratic party won enough seats in the Colorado Senate to take the majority from Republicans. This power shift marked the beginning of unitary control of both chambers of the legislature and the governorship simultaneously for the first time since 2014.
For the past three legislative sessions, one party has had the power to advance legislation and budgets without the need for bipartisanship.
The growth in state government
Last year, Complete Colorado reported that in the 2021 legislative session alone, the legislature approved 160 bills which increased the number of state government FTEs (full-time equivalent hires). All of them became law except one, HB21-1024, which Governor Polis vetoed.
In total, the bills increased state payroll by about 320 employees this year, according to Legislative Council Staff fiscal note estimates. That number will grow to just under 440 next year. Only four bills reduced the number of state employees last session.
The three bills which increased government employment the most all passed the House on a strictly party-line vote. Each of them passed the Senate on a near-party-line vote.
One of them was Senate Bill 21-260, the so-called transportation bill. The bill triggered controversy last year when the legislature packed it with nearly $4 billion in new government fees on things like gas and ridesharing, but did not send it to the ballot for a vote of the people.
Implementing the new law requires about twenty-two new state staff members across various agencies this year and thirty-three next year. For the fiscal year starting in July, it will cost Colorado approximately $3 million to employ these new FTEs, or just over $90,000 each.
The bill with the third largest FTE increase, HB21-1266, as originally written, sought “to redress the effects of environmental injustice on disproportionately impacted communities” through the creation of an Environmental Justice Action Task Force. It only required three new state workers and would have cost just $500,000 to implement.
On the final day of session, however, the Senate attached SB21-200 as an amendment to the bill. The additional language increased the cost of the final legislation to over $5 million and thirty-five new FTEs by FY2023-24.
Unified vs. divided government
Government expansion looked very different when both major political parties shared power in the state.
From 2018—the most recent year with a Republican-controlled Senate to balance the Democrat-controlled House—through the last concluded legislative session, the number of government FTEs has grown by about 7.5 percent. Over the same period, private sector employment improved by less than one percent.
In contrast, from 2016-2018—when the parties shared power—government FTEs rose just 4.55 percent and the state’s private sector employment grew over seven percent. Put differently, the ratio of public to private sector employment growth over the last three years was twelve times that of the preceding three.
During the entire four-year period of two-party rule, public employment grew by just 7.11 percent—less than in three years under one-party government.
Unlike in the United States Senate, the Colorado Senate has no cloture requirement to compel the majority to negotiate or compromise with the minority. If a single party holds a simple majority in both chambers of the legislature, they can force through any legislation they wish. With a governor of the same party, they possess the sole power to create new laws.
The emergence of political supremacy by one party in 2019 and the outsized expansion of state government since then has coincided with a decline in Colorado’s economic competitiveness.
Based on policy changes in the last few years, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) projects that Colorado’s economic competitiveness relative to other states will fall eighteen places in the coming years.
The data are clear. In Colorado, when Democrats enjoy unchallenged political power, government thrives and the private sector stagnates.
No doubt Republicans would likewise steamroll Democrats if they wielded dominance over the whole of state government. That would undeniably come with its own set of adverse consequences.
But when both parties share in the responsibility of governing, the two parties must negotiate and compromise. Consequently, the private sector thrives while government grows at a steady, controlled pace.
Ben Murrey is director of fiscal policy at the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver.
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