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Colo. Gov. Tries To Cut State Employees' Benefits

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Colorado is one of many states looking to raid state employee pension plans to help bridge huge budget gaps.

KIRK SIEGLER: I'm Kirk Siegler in Denver, where Colorado has a Democratic governor who plans to cut state employee benefits to help shore up a billion dollar budget deficit.

Unidentified Group: (Chanting) Shame on you, shame on you, shame on...

SIEGLER: Union leaders staged a rally yesterday on the steps of the Colorado capitol in support of Wisconsin's state workers. Colorado is not solidly pro-union. But it's not a so-called right-to-work state either. And some state employees like Ricardo Mathius have fought to keep it that way in recent years.

Mr. RICARDO MATHIUS (Colorado State Employee): We can't afford to short change these workers or the critical services they provide. I stand in solidarity with you, today, my brothers and sisters, and especially in Wisconsin.

SIEGLER: State employees are heading into their third year of a pay freeze. But here, the cuts aren't seen as an attempt at union busting. Governor John Hickenlooper says his hands are tied.

Governor JOHN HICKENLOOPER (Democrat, Colorado): There is no workforce that wants to face that, ever, and yet there are people all over the state, and not a small number, that have no job.

SIEGLER: Hickenlooper cast himself as a business-friendly Democrat. His plan is to increase economic development to raise more revenue, because he says Coloradans can't stomach a tax increase. Unlike every other state, voters, and not the Colorado legislature, must approve each and every single tax hike.

Mr. RICH JONES (Analyst, Bell Policy Center): And I think that's the trade off that really has to be explained and laid out for the public, so that they can be in a better position to make a choice.

SIEGLER: Rich Jones is an analyst at the Denver-based budget think-tank, the Bell Policy Center.

Mr. JONES: Do we want to continue with some significant cuts in K-12 education, or do we want to, you know, look elsewhere and possibly talk about raising revenues?

SIEGLER: In Colorado, K-12 education will see the biggest cut in this year's budget, hitting small, rural schools the hardest, like the one where Kristi Harrig works. She's worried she'll lose her job, as she's worried anti-union fever will spill over into Colorado.

Ms. KRISTI HARRIG: I don't want unions seen as a bad thing. You know, the history behind where we've come, it's important, you know, we can't just dump it.

SIEGLER: That's unlikely in Colorado, at least for now, with union-friendly Democrats controlling the state senate.

For NPR News, I'm Kirk Siegler, in Denver.

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We're also following the court battle over President Obama's heath care overhaul. A federal judge in Washington was the latest to rule. A suit brought by a group linked with the televangelist Pat Robertson challenged the requirement that Americans buy health insurance starting in 2014. The judge threw out that suit. Three judges have now upheld the law, two judges have ruled against it, and Judge Gladys Kessler notes that the Supreme Court will eventually settle the constitutional issues raised by this case.

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