Doesn’t Excuse Gessler, But Shouldn’t We Pay Them More?

A report from KRDO-TV on the scandal over Secretary of State Scott Gessler’s decision to work part time for his politically radioactive law firm, somehow free of conflicts of interest:

To be clear, we have no interest in defending Secretary Gessler’s decision to “moonlight” for his old firm, which is in turn connected to some of the most toxic characters in Colorado politics (see: Shires, Scott)–and we don’t see a way for him to carry out his duties as Secretary of State with such a large, unaccountable soft spot raising questions about everything he does. Moreover, Gessler’s complaints that he can’t survive on a $68,500 a year salary look absolutely horrible to the average Colorado citizen, who will be happy to notify Gessler that he/she makes a lot less.

This certainly is a public relations disaster for Gessler at least; and on the heels of awful press over cutting school breakfast money for poor kids, it tells the story once again of a hypocritical, out-of-touch GOP in Colorado–who has been losing more elections than they win in recent years.

We feel it’s necessary to enter all of the above into the record before we address the point made by Colorado College’s astute Prof. Bob Loevy in the KRDO story at top:

“I’m embarrassed for the people of Colorado,” said Bob Loevy, Colorado College Political Professor, “because the root cause of this story is we pay our public officials woeful salaries compared to what they could make in the private sector.”

Loevy said pay for Colorado state leaders is on the low-end compared to other states.

“When you pay all your state officials, other than your governor, under $70,000 a year, that’s just not realistic in today’s market for personnel,” he said…Loevy agreed, however, that a job at Hackstaff Law Group would be a conflict of interest with Gessler’s state post.

This is, it must be said, a valid point: professionals like lawyers, meaning like Gessler, would normally have a private-sector income substantially higher than $70,000 per year. And as Loevy says, the relatively low pay for top positions in Colorado government relative to what a person with the same skills could get in the private sector does create a disincentive for some very qualified people to seek office. We submit to you that this is a problem affecting not just statewide elected posts, but also state legislators; who are asked to take on de facto full time workloads, during and outside the session, for less than a McDonald’s manager earns.

Does this excuse Gessler’s actions? Of course not–he knew what the job he was running for would pay, and he’s not so foolish as to have no comprehension why his election-specialty law firm is a much bigger potential conflict of interest than, say, Ken Salazar’s Dairy Queen or John Suthers’ class at DU. Gessler has demonstrated a level of brashness with this move that looks like cluelessness, but is really much more straightforward arrogance. It validates some of the worst criticisms made by his opponents, and raises very serious questions about his judgment.

But it seems to us that if spectacles like this one can be avoided, along with votes to take breakfast away from poor kids that you have to admit make pay raises for politicians a, um, harder sell, perhaps someday this is a conversation we ought to have. We, like Prof. Loevy, are a little embarrassed to have to mention it in these circumstances, even though it’s true. It’s like finding defective brakes in a crash obviously the fault of a careless driver–you still have to note it.

57 Community Comments, Facebook Comments

  1. Ralphie says:

    won’t make a difference.

    The REAL money is in influence-peddling.

  2. BlueCat says:

    but side jobs that don’t involve clear and obvious conflict of interest, such as AG Suthers teaching a course in criminal justice, present much less of a problem in the meantime.   For Gessler to be allowed to work for a law firm specializing in advising clients in the area of election law and related matters and to serve as SOS at the same time is completely untenable.  

  3. ProgressiveCowgirl says:

    Our elected officials work much harder even out of session than many people who are paid two, three, or four times as much. They deserve a raise. But let’s feed the starving kids first. I don’t think reps like Max Tyler would vote for raises for themselves until that’s dealt with.

  4. gaf says:

    raises very serious questions about his judgment

    I have no “questions.” Damn clear to me!

  5. Angie Paccione says:

    State Representatives are a bargain at $30,000… Hard to believe!

    Didn’t Scott know what his salary was going to be BEFORE he ran for office?? Did he plan this all along?? Bring back Bernie!

    • droll says:

      as if it’s a good thing to compare salary to.  The bigger issue with that, to me, is that we have a guy who apparently can’t plan ahead or budget in charge of that large a budget.

      I realize you didn’t mention it; it just seemed to fit here.

    • DavidThi808 says:


      Does higher pay correlate with better performance from more experienced legislators? Not necessarily. A survey by the Illinois Policy Institute found that the 10 states with lowest legislator salaries had a budget deficit for fiscal year 2010 amounting to 19 percent of their general fund. In contrast, the 10 states with the highest legislator salaries had budget deficits for 2010 that amounted to 30 percent of their general fund.

      Correlation does not mean causation. But low pay and a shorter session is not necessarily a bad thing in terms of results. If anyone else has seen any other measures of legislator pay/terms vs results I think that would be very interesting.

      • gaf says:

        I don’t have an answer, just an anecdote: Those conservatives in Texas have been bragging of their low taxes and fiscal responsibility. And with a $7,200 salary and meeting only 140 days every other year, they don’t spend much on legislators (except there are 181 of them).

        It seems their 2-year budget process has masked the damage of the last two years, and now as they go into the next cycle they are short $25 billion or more. In relative terms they are worst off that California–who, of course, they have been mocking the past two years!

        A one state example does nothing to answer your question, of course. But it appears that Texas’ official 2010 deficit was masking reality.  

    • ohwilleke says:

      Moreover, one of the biggest factors that makes state representatives and state senators subject to outside influence is their lack of adequate staff.

      If General Assembly members had more staff they wouldn’t have to rely nearly so much on lobbyists for bill specific research.

  6. redstateblues says:

    Give Politicians a raise while 10% are out of work? Really?

    I get the argument that our state officials need to get paid more, but this is a case of the right idea with the wrong timing.

  7. Leonard Smalls says:

    I can’t for the life of me figure out why for all the issues and massive budget problems the state is facing, we have such underpaid legislators who are only in session 5 months out of the year.

    • Pam Bennett says:

      TABOR was designed to destroy the local and state governments of Colorado.  It nearly succeeded until C passed.  Now when the state is almost belly up the ability to pass a tax increase to save Colorado in nil.

      The legislature is severely limited in what it can do because of the dictates of so many constitutional budget amendments.  Again, the system was gamed by those willing to take the elected representatives of the people of Colorado and reduce them to trying to divvy up a small percentage of revenues.  

  8. davebarnes says:

    Ken can ask Hope to give a part-time job to Scott at her Dairy Queen.

    Bi-partisanship in action.

  9. OneEyedOwl says:

    to provide free lunches to kids from low-income families, we sure as hell can’t afford to be giving raises to politicians.

    I’m waiting for a Republican to make the case for giving Gessler et al a raise while at the same time making poor kids pay 30 cents for lunch.

    • BlueCat says:

      There’s that, too.  In any case, Gessler  needs to decide whther he wants to be a highly paid lawyer or SOS.  

      • Ralphie says:

        I echo your sentiments.

        However, under Colorado law, it’s not really clear that Gessler NEEDS to make that choice.

        He’s reading the law and thumbing his nose at the rest of us.

        Unfortunately, given the difficulty of getting rid of his sorry ass, he’ll be able to do that for the next four years.

        • BlueCat says:

          Don’t know that there is any law or ethics mechanism that would force him to do so and agree that he will do whatever he can get away with. If there is the slightest possibility of engineering a recall, that ought to be pursued and he should never be allowed to get through a day without hearing demands that he quit one job or the other or (preferably) resign.  

          If he really doesn’t get what an untenable conflict of interest his proposed dual career represents, no one ought to have confidence in him as someone who can be trusted to run our state’s elections, even if he can be convinced, at this point, to give up working for his old (or should we say still current) firm.

          Thinking about Buescher and Kennedy losing to such low quality rivals as Gessler and Stapleton is really depressing.  Not to mention seeing my own HD Rep., Joe Rice, an influential, experienced House star, getting replaced by a twit with no qualifications who tells people that Jesus wanted her to to be our Rep. Really, really depressing.  

          • ajb says:

            In my work, I qualify as a “special government employee.” (For arcane accounting reasons, a fraction of my time is accounted for as a govt employee.) As such, I have to take an online govt ethics course every year. I took the course last week, before any of this story broke.

            It’s clear that if Gessler were a federal employee, he would be violating ethics laws. Period. It’s not even close.

            And another thing. In federal law, you don’t get the benefit of the doubt.  

    • HikingTheAppalachianTrail says:

      The Dept of Ed ran out of money for it and was asking for more.

      The Dept of Ed could readjust their existing budget to fund it, but chose not to.

      Take the $780,000 that CU just spent on a new logo and use it to make up the difference in the breakfast program, and fund it next year with the remainder.

  10. Dabee47 says:

    Isn’t there some rich republican that could put Kristi Gessler on the payroll?  Put her on a board or something.  A foundation maybe.  

    I swear I’m not kidding.

  11. Ray Springfield says:

    No.The state has a billion dollar budget shortfall.

  12. wbhyde says:

    I agree that our state officials are underpaid.  I also agree that it’s not the right climate to put an increase on the ballot.  Maybe put it on the future list along with repealing the Bankrupt Colorado Amendment (TABOR).  Too bad we can only put one topic in a ballot issue — there’s some justice to pairing those two I think.

  13. koop says:

    Every election we get a handful of qualified people eager to spend a lot of their own money to get one of these “underpaid” positions.  

  14. I think the answer to the question, absent considerations of budget shortfalls and the taxpayer’s mood, is pretty easy.

    Of course they’re underpaid for what they’re supposed to do.  And this goes more than double for the State Legislators, whose salaries are so low that a significant fraction of well-qualified individuals are dissuaded from running every cycle.

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