Colorado's governor has the smallest paycheck in the country (almost)

DENVER -- The race to become Colorado’s next governor is heating up but the candidates are actually vying for one of the lowest salaries for that position in the country.

  • Colorado’s salary for its governor ranks 49th in the country. 
  • Colorado pays its governor $90,000 per year.
  • The average national salary is $136,709.
  • The salary of Denver’s mayor is nearly double what the governor is paid.

Former Colorado Governor Richard Lamm says it’s time for the state to explore raising the governor’s salary significantly.

“Colorado should be embarrassed, we should not be 49th in anything,” Lamm says. “This is going to become a rich person’s sport. It already is almost becoming a rich person’s sport.”

Governor John Hickenlooper made plenty of money before he took office as a restaurant owner and says he doesn’t consider the salary to be a personal concern, but he does think the state would be wise to give his successors a raise.

“I accepted that when I ran, but that doesn't necessarily mean it’s a good place for the state to be,” Hickenlooper says. “We've got a $27 billion dollar budget. You don't want somebody coming in here who's never balanced their checkbook.”

9 out of 10 can’t guess the governor’s salary

Denver7 asked 10 people on the street whether they could correctly guess the governor’s salary compared to Rockies shortstop Trevor Story, pro skier Lindsey Vonn, Colorado Supreme Court Chief Justice Nancy Rice, and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock.

Only one of the ten correctly guessed Governor Hickenlooper’s $90,000 salary – and that man who guessed correctly admitted it was a wild guess.

The other contestants were pretty surprised to learn the governor had the lowest paycheck on the list. Here’s how Brian Nemeth reacted:

“That's sad, that's really sad,” Naomi Ellison said.

“We don’t value him as much as we should,” Emily McDonald said.

“One person in ten guessed my salary right. I think that says something, there might be a misalignment,” Hickenlooper said. “Maybe if we made these facts more widely known, then perhaps the citizens would speak out and say ‘No, no, we want to have good elected officials and it's worth paying them a little more.’”

Governor cites the state’s “frugal” history

The salary for Colorado’s governor has not increased since 1999 and is not scheduled to go up until 2019, according to the governor’s office.

The Legislature could move to increase the salaries for the governor and the state’s other elected constitutional offices, but Governor Hickenlooper says that’s just not the way Colorado historically acts.

“I think it says Colorado is frugal,” he says. “We're one of the lowest-paid state legislatures, we don't pay our judges up to the average. We're just a frugal group … I think my mother would say cheap if she was still alive.”

“Colorado as a state is sometimes perceived as cheap. But we get great outcomes, right?” Hickenlooper continues. “If you look at the average salary for teachers in this state, we're way below other states, but we have some of the best teachers in America. Because part of their compensation is living in Colorado.”

Lamm served as Colorado’s governor until 1987 – starting at a salary of $40,000 and ending at $60,000. He says having a young family at the time made the salary tough at times.

“There's some people who don't even think about running for governor, it's not even on their radar because the pay is so low. And they have a family to support or they have kids going to college,” Lamm says. “I spent 12 years in that office and when I got out my young kids were on their way to college and I had no money saved.”

And Hickenlooper says Lamm’s story speaks to a broader concern about whether people who are not wealthy can take on the state’s highest office.

“We probably should change and make sure we don't exclude somebody who just can't afford to raise their family and be governor all in the same time,” Hickenlooper says. “For most people in the state, $90,000 is a huge number. But you know for really talented people, who are real achievers in the modern world, it's a really relatively low level of compensation. It's a job that takes 60-70 hours a week pretty much every week and you want to make sure you don't exclude someone.”

There is a slight raise in the picture for the next governor – starting in January of 2019, the governor will be paid 66 percent of the Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court's salary. (Under the chief justice’s current salary, the governor’s pay would rise to $97,680.) The governor’s salary will adjust using the same calculation every four years thereafter.

Lamm says the state needs to do more than that.

"I think that one of the problems in our society is that everybody in politics is so snakebitten on this question of salaries … I think nobody wants to take the displeasure of the public in these issues,” he says. “You need to adequately pay a Colorado governor and if you don't it's gonna come back to haunt you… a good efficient and effective governor can save the taxpayers a lot of money or they can conversely waste a lot of money.”  

Some governors take no pay at all

Governor Hickenlooper says he donates his net pay (or something close to it) to charity every year.

“I put my business in a trust and then I try to give the salary away just so people know I'm in it for Colorado,” he says. “To give back to the community just so no one can ever say 'You're doing this to make money,' or 'You're doing this for the benefit of your business,' or whatever.”

He is not the only independently-wealthy governor who does not keep his paycheck, according to the Council of State Governments:

  • Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam returns his $187,500 salary to the state.
  • Florida Gov. Rick Scott declines his salary.
  • Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner accepts only $1 in pay per year with no benefits.

“For most people, the compensation for getting to be governor isn't financial. It's getting to meet the most interesting people in the world, dealing with the smartest folks, with the toughest problems, and trying to sort out what is the best solution, and how do we get to a compromise. For me that's certainly been a reward beyond what I could've ever imagined,” Hickenlooper says.

Paychecks at a glance

Highest Governor Salaries:

  • Pennsylvania     $190,823
  • Tennessee         $187,500
  • New York           $179,000
  • California           $177,467
  • Illinois                $177,412

Lowest Governor Salaries:

  1. Maine       $70,000
  2. Colorado  $90,000
  3. Arizona    $95,000
  4. Oregon    $98,600
  5. Kansas    $99,636
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