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Lobbyists gather outside of the Colorado Senate chambers on Feb. 22, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Some chat with lawmakers while others huddle in small groups to discuss legislation. Together, these lobbyists will receive tens of millions of dollars this year from big businesses, nonprofit organizations and local governments hoping to influence Colorado elected officials.

The combined total spent on lobbying from July 2014 through December is estimated at $138 million, according to a Colorado Sun analysis of state disclosure reports. How accurate that total is is difficult to discern because of the state’s convoluted disclosure system, inconsistencies in lobbyists’ filings and lax enforcement.

The total spent on lobbying is increasing, to more than $33 million in 2018 from roughly $30 million in 2015, the analysis found.

So far this session, nearly 500 individuals and lobbying firms are registered to influence state lawmakers and officials. That’s about five lobbyists for every legislator.

They represent more than 1,000 clients — from health care nonprofits to the cannabis industry and oil and gas companies — and spend most days tracking legislation, persuading lawmakers to support or oppose certain bills and negotiating for their clients behind the scenes.

The work to influence state lawmakers is just one facet of the job. Many interest groups that hire lobbyists also spend big money to influence who gets elected.

The Sun looked at 2018 campaign donations from 150 of the top interest groups and businesses employing lobbyists, and determined they gave nearly $18 million to lawmakers, super PACs and other political committees — most of it aimed at winning seats in the 100-member legislature.

The big dollars lead some to question whether lobbyists wield outsize influence on behalf of their clients, overshadowing the voices of voters, who don’t have a paid presence at the Capitol.

“The problem is when special interests get more airtime than regular people,” said Amanda Gonzalez, executive director of Common Cause Colorado, an organization that seeks to reduce the influence of money in politics.

But lobbyists also play a key role in educating lawmakers, serving as a fountain of information and institutional memory for part-time lawmakers whose terms are limited to eight years in each chamber.

“Sometimes (lawmakers) need really specialized information to help them make decisions,” said Jennifer Victor, a political scientist at George Mason University. “And that’s the role that lobbyists play. … They’re really sort of the information powerhouse of the legislative process.”

The scenario is especially true this year in Colorado. Nearly one-third of the state’s lawmakers are new, and the political landscape has changed. Democrats now hold all the cards after taking control of the state Senate, increasing their numbers in the House and electing a new governor in 2018. That means new issues are being pushed to the forefront and interest groups are scrambling to be heard.

The Colorado State Capitol Building on Jan 19, 2019. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Reporting system complicates public disclosure

In Colorado, lobbyists are required to file monthly reports with the secretary of state’s office, listing the clients they represent, how much the clients pay them, and where the clients stand on the bills they are tracking.

But the information is difficult to navigate, and that makes it hard for the public to know who is paying — and how much — to influence state lawmakers and officials.

There’s plenty of duplication in the system. For instance, when a lobbying firm reports income from clients, its individual employees may also report income from the firm. Many lobbyists are clear that they’re reporting income from subcontracts with other lobbyists, making a note on the form even though it isn’t required. But some don’t specify when a payment comes from another lobbyist as a subcontract.

Capitol Sunlight: A citizen’s guide to lawmaking and lobbying in Colorado

Many lobbyists also report income for all services they provide clients, including non-lobbying consulting, such as public relations. Others don’t.

The Colorado Sun analysis of spending removed payments from lobbying firms to their employees and made best efforts to eliminate subcontracting payments from totals.

Secretary of State Jena Griswold, a Democrat, acknowledged the shortcomings of the current online system and told The Sun that she’d like to make information about lobbyists more accessible to the public. It’s part of a broader effort in her office to shed more light on the money in politics.

“I think there is a basic tool that we could provide that would be easier to more comprehensively see money in Colorado politics, and that’s what we hope to build,” she said.

Griswold also would like to see more real-time reporting on what bills lobbyists are working on, and even a list of lobbyists and clients working on a bill listed in legislative documents. Now, lobbyists report their income, clients and bills they lobbied once a month. So if a position changes on a bill changes or a client is added, it can be difficult to immediately discern.

Her predecessor, Republican Wayne Williams, began examining the lobbying system last year, consulting with lobbyists and those who use the system, including journalists, to learn about what changes they’d like to see made. Griswold is continuing that process, with an eye on both upgrading the online system and improving reporting requirements.

The big lobbying spenders are major companies

Big business spends the most on lobbyists each legislative session as lawmakers propose bills that could impact them. Xcel Energy, Colorado’s largest utility, tops the list and Comcast, the cable and internet company, comes in second, the Sun’s analysis found.

But associations representing doctors, lawyers and hospitals also rank among the top spenders in the past four and a half years. So do the University of Colorado and the state retirement system.

The Sun contacted the top 15 clients to confirm their lobbying costs. Mile High Racing, AT&T, Uber and the City of Denver didn’t respond, but others confirmed the numbers.

Many of these businesses or industries donated to candidates or super PACs that helped candidates get elected in November. Education unions and a Democratic education nonprofit top the donor list, though it also includes a conservative education nonprofit, a conservative business nonprofit, a service worker union and environmental nonprofit.

Democratic-affiliated super PACs were among the top recipients of the money from industries and organizations with lobbyists, The Sun found. Coloradans for Fairness, which supported Democratic state Senate candidates, received nearly $3.7 million from interest groups with lobbyists, while Our Colorado Values, which backed Democratic state House candidates, received nearly $2.5 million. The GOP Senate Majority Fund received about $2.4 million.

State law prohibits lawmakers from accepting campaign contributions from lobbyists and their clients during the 120-day legislative session.

The campaign contributions may buy access to lawmakers, but the research on whether it sways the issue positions of elected officials is not conclusive, said George Mason’s Victor.

“For the most part, those individuals or groups donate to candidates that already agree with them on issues or policy,” she said. “So the idea that those campaign donations are changing the mind of candidates or are causing those candidates (who) become politicians to make a legislative choice that they wouldn’t have otherwise … we just don’t find a ton of evidence for that.”

Lobbyists get their clients’ voices heard

One recent morning, when Democratic Sen. Faith Winter left the chamber, she talked with four lobbyists. She said she typically talks to a dozen lobbyists a day, at a minimum.

She said she views lobbyists as partners on bills she sponsors, because they provide information, help craft amendments and build coalitions to support her efforts.

“The lobbyists I’m working with on bills I care about share my values,” said Winter, who was a lobbyist before she was elected to office.

Gayle Berry and Mike Feeley have been on both sides of the lawmaking. Berry is a former Republican House member who served on the Joint Budget Committee, while Feeley is a former Democratic Senate minority leader.

Today, they both work as lobbyists, representing corporate, government and nonprofit clients. Those clients often represent everyday Coloradans, Feeley said.

“Everybody’s a special interest,” Feeley said. “Whether you’re a tobacco company or a children’s health organization, you’re still a special interest.”

Berry said she worked with lobbyists when she was a lawmaker, but they didn’t always sway her vote. “If I don’t like your bill, I’m still gonna vote against you,” she said. “And I think that’s a good philosophy to have.”

State lawmakers debate legislation in the Colorado House of Representatives on Feb. 15, 2019 at the Colorado Capitol. (Jesse Paul, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Most bills don’t spark that much interest with the public. Instead, a roomful of lobbyists typically listens as lawmakers debate measures, and later conduct conversations privately. And Victor, the George Mason political scientist, said it’s possible for the lobbyists and their clients to have more influence than people who are not at the building following the legislative action.

“The people who are playing in that game, who are providing the lobbying and the campaign contributions and going after all that stuff, is not a representative sample of the population,” she said. “It’s not a representative sample of ideas.”

Winter said her constituents’ views matter more than those of lobbyists. “Constituent voices are more important, I think, on their opinion and how they want me to vote and the reasons why, because my job is to bring their hopes and dreams to this building,” the Westminster lawmaker said.

Few people, though, have the time to devote to closely following the activities of the legislature. Gonzalez, who is registered to lobby on behalf of Common Cause Colorado, cited a recent hearing on a bill that would change how the state awards its electoral votes in presidential elections as an example. More than 70 people signed up to address the measure, part of a national popular vote movement.

“We had at least four members there who were planning to testify, one of whom had never been inside the Capitol before,” she said. “Sadly, he ended up having to leave because he had to go pick up his kid.”

Editor’s Note: Correspondent Sandra Fish was one of the journalists who participated in a focus group with the secretary of state’s office last summer about the use of lobbyist data.


Sandra Fish has covered government and politics in Iowa, Florida, New Mexico and Colorado. She was a full-time journalism instructor at the University of Colorado for eight years, and her work as appeared on CPR, KUNC, The Washington Post, Roll...