By Debi Brazzale, COLORADO NEWS AGENCY
An independent audit presented today to a legislative panel shows that Colorado still trails other states in state-government employee benefits, but some lawmakers cried foul in light of benefits in the private sector that they say lag even further behind the state’s offerings.
The audit of the Department of Personnel and Administration’s employee-benefits program, carried out by Sjoberg Evashenk Consulting, Inc., under the auspices of the Office of the State Auditor, was presented at the Capitol to members of the Legislative Audit Committee. It shows that state employee health insurance benefits are still shy of catching up with those of peers in other states in terms of overall value to the employee.
However, Colorado’s policy of extending full health insurance benefits to part-time employees–defined as working one “regular” day per month–and of granting 10 days of sick leave annually, far exceed that of other comparable employers.
Health insurance benefits eat up 86 percent of the $281 million spent annually by the state on employee benefits. Approximately 29,000 state employees avail themselves of health insurance benefits with the remainder opting out.
The state has a fixed-dollar amount, regardless of the employee’s salary, that is applied toward health insurance. It amounts to $357 per month toward covering the employee and up to $883 per month toward covering the employee’s family. Plans range from as little as $7 per month for employee contributions for an individual, and $205 for family coverage, to as high as $85 per month in employee contributions for individual coverage and $436 per month for family coverage.
Sen. Dave Schultheis, R-Colorado Springs, who chairs the audit committee, said any lag in benefits received by state employees can’t compare with hardships in the private sector.
“When I look through this report … I think to myself, ‘How many private companies can afford the benefits that we’re seeing here?’” said Schultheis.
State statute enacted in 2004 requires that state employee benefits must be similar to benefits offered by comparable employers. The audit makes comparisons to 12 other states, local cities and counties, and to limited information gleaned from voluntary surveys of the private sector. Sen. Jim Kerr, R- Littleton, said such comparisons are not reflective of the real world, where employers have to respond quickly to economic pressures.
“Your market (used in the audit) is primarily government. That’s the dilemma that I have when we’re trying to do comparatives,” said Kerr. “The private sector better reflects what is happening in our economy.”
Sen. Lois Tochtrop, D-Thornton, disagreed.
“I don’t feel like the audit is skewed because we are comparing apples to apples with other states,” Tochtrop said. She also said state employees earn their benefits.
Yet, Schultheis said taxpayers can’t help but make the comparisons to their own experiences.
“People are angry out there. They see a growing government, and it’s taking more and more money out of their pockets. For us to have an audit that is basically a cocoon….if the public begins to know about this….I think there’s going to be a lot of anger,” said Schultheis. “We’re not looking at the people that are struggling out there and trying to make a living and have no benefits close to this in most cases.”
However, Sjoberg Evashenk’s George Skiles said that with a few cost-saving measures, employee benefits should be safeguarded and if possible improved upon.
“Employees in the state are paying more than they should be for medical benefits, and there can be improvements made to the benefit plan structure overall,” Skiles said.