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Politics and Government

Lawmakers take aim at disclosure loopholes in Colorado lobbying laws

The legislation addresses problems identified in a Colorado Sun analysis of the money behind influence peddling at the Capitol

Lobbyists gather outside of the Colorado Senate chambers on Feb. 22, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
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Colorado lawmakers have introduced a measure to eliminate loopholes in lobbying laws and require more disclosure to the public, part of an effort to address long-standing concerns about transparency.

The legislation — House Bill 1248 — would require more frequent reporting by lobbyists what bills they were hired to track and the position taken by their clients. Lobbyists would need to file any changes in their positions on legislation within 48 hours during the session. Now, those updates are required only once a month.

The legislation also aims to close loopholes that some lobbyists appear to use to avoid reporting income from clients. In particular, it would require lobbyists who are also attorneys to file disclosures that list their lobbying clients. And it would require individual lobbyists to not only disclose the firms where they work, but all the clients that hired them.

State Rep. Mike Weissman, an Aurora Democrat. (Handout)

“I think we as elected officials are caretakers of the public trust for so long as we are in our office,” said Rep. Mike Weissman, an Aurora Democrat and the bill’s sponsor. “One has a responsibility to (instill) confidence in representative government when you are an office. That is why I’m bringing this bill, to fortify public confidence in what we do at the Capitol.”

The reporting and disclosure issues were in a Colorado Sun analysis about the big money spent on lobbyists in Colorado and the lack of transparency to the public.

The Sun found that businesses, nonprofit organizations, local governments and other political interests spent an estimated $138 million combined on lobbying from July 2014 through December. The totals are increasing with more than $33 million spent in 2018 compared to roughly $30 million in 2015, the analysis found.

One of the major issues identified in the report that the bill seeks to address is how lobbyists don’t consistently disclose their employers. For example, some list the clients that pay them without disclosing that they are working as a subcontractor. Others list payments from other lobbying firms without identifying clients they’re representing.

In 2015, the Center for Public Integrity gave Colorado a “D” for lobbying disclosure. And in 2017, KUNC reported that several law and lobbying firms failed to report income from clients, instead reporting only payments directly to lobbyists they employed.

Some of those firms began filing client payments after the report. But the Secretary of State doesn’t analyze lobbying data to determine whether lobbyists and lobbying firms disclose as much as they should.

The measure still doesn’t include any enforcement requirements. Now, automatic fines are levied if lobbyists file late reports. But more substantial violations require complaints to be filed by outside parties.

For instance, a state lawmaker filed a complaint in 2017 against a lobbyist who registered only his company and not his name as the principal, which is required by law.  The lobbyist and attorney was fined, filed a lawsuit and later had the penalty reduced by a third.

Longtime lobbyist Mike Beasley said the legislation is a good clarification to reforms enacted in 2014. But it will be difficult to enact “unless the technology in the Secretary of State’s office is working,” he said.

Secretary of State Jena Griswold said that improving disclosure software is among her priorities, as is better transparency to the public.

The lobbying bill is part of that larger reform effort, led by Griswold and Democratic lawmakers, that includes measures to increase campaign advertising disclosure, limit campaign contributions to county officials and expose dark money in politics.

“This bill makes lobbyist activity more transparent, and is a good step forward in providing Coloradans with more information on special interests’ influence in our legislature and elections,” Griswold said in a statement.

The legislation is scheduled for its first hearing in a House committee Tuesday.

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