Guest Columns


Amendment S — It’s like a Trojan horse masquerading as a carousel pony


The American Constitution is admired for its introduction of checks and balances among the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government. The opportunity for obstruction and delay this creates has frustrated reformers of every stripe, yet it was the stated intention of our founding fathers that they should guard public policy against the popular whims of impassioned zealotry. Three independent, competing centers of power were meant to serve as a brake on precipitous change. Our Constitution did not anticipate the potential for misgovernment that would grow out of party politics and a “spoils system” of patronage hiring.

Following the rampant corruption of the Grant administration, Congress created the federal Civil Service System in response to widespread public revulsion. It took a few more decades before state governments imposed similar checks on their governors and legislatures. A century ago Colorado governors served two-year terms. Each time a new Governor was elected, there was a nearly 100 percent turnover in state workers as winners filled state positions with relatives, political supporters and business cronies. State government was notoriously corrupt, incompetent and wasteful.

Fed up with this recurring distribution of favors, reformers placed an initiative on the ballot in 1916 imposing a civil service system on Colorado state government. Voters overwhelmingly approved their initiative. Within 30 days the legislature that convened in 1917 gutted these civil service provisions and reinstated the patronage politics they preferred. As evidence that some patterns rarely change, reformers returned to the ballot in 1918, placing a Civil Service System in the Colorado Constitution where legislators could no longer tamper with it. Their purpose was to create a merit-based, professional workforce that possessed the skills, knowledge and experience required to safely provide public services. Furthermore, this workforce was expected to be responsible directly to taxpayers, guarding against the waste of public dollars.

In the century since voters provided our legislators and the governor with a professional civil service as a management tool available to them for governing Colorado, politicians have chafed at their inability to demand knee-bending obedience from state workers. Our politicians have asked voters nine times to strip protections from Colorado’s civil service employees, and nine times voters have turned them down. Amendment S is their tenth attempt.

Supporters claim they simply wish to modernize hiring practices so we can attract talented applicants, presumably unavailable in Colorado. Strangely, however, they also plan to replace competitive testing with an undefined ‘comparative analysis’ of qualifications.The governor currently has 125 appointments through the state’s Senior Executive Service. This amendment will add another 190 positions. Ask yourself: does any governor need 300 appointees to manage state government? Amendment S also makes departmental human resource directors political appointees who will report directly to Cabinet officers. Do you think a future governor won’t be able to manipulate this cozy arrangement to hire and promote whomever they want? I ask you, who, with any real talent, would choose a career in such a system?

As evidence for its virtues, supporters like to point out that Amendment S was placed on November’s ballot with a unanimous vote in both houses of the legislature — that the fact every governor since John Love, with the exception of John Vanderhoof who only served two years, both Democrat and Republican, has placed a similar measure on the Colorado ballot offers additional evidence there must be something profoundly wrong with Colorado’s civil service system. That’s malarkey, to use a recently popular pejorative. This is a power struggle. Governors and legislators don’t like push back from smart, informed, experienced state managers who disagree with their personal agendas.

Our political system rarely elects individuals who have worked inside large companies or public bureaucracies. Consequently, they have little experience with organizations where advancement and promotion is limited to the ass-kissers and unctuous flatterers. Amendment S will create one for them, and taxpayers will be the poorer for it. Vote NO on S!

Miller Hudson is the former executive director of the Colorado Association of Public Employees and also the past executive director at the Colorado Intermountain Fixed Guideway Authority. He is currently an independent governmental relations professional.