One of the Democratic majority’s greatest disappointments in the final days of the legislative session was the failure to guarantee paid family leave in Colorado.
The legislation was reduced to a feasibility study of the concept — in large part because of intense lobbying from business interests against the measure.
In fact, Senate Bill 188 was the most-lobbied legislation for the bulk of the session, according to a Colorado Sun analysis of the state’s lobbying records.
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More than 200 lobbyists reported tracking the bill on behalf of a similar number of interest groups and businesses through the end of March, the most recent period for which data is available.
“The pressure from the lobby absolutely impacted the outcome of this bill,” said sponsor Sen. Faith Winter, D-Westminster.
The list of bills that drew the most attention from lobbyists included an effort on equal pay for women, a handful of state spending measures such as the $30.5 billion budget, and two major health care bills to create a public option health insurance plan and a reinsurance program.
The initial analysis shows that lobbying often follows the money — whether it’s state dollars at play or the interests of big business.
Businesses, nonprofits, unions and others spent $25 million on lobbying from July through the end of March, according to the analysis of data from the secretary of state’s office. It comes as money spent on lobbying continues to increase in Colorado, where lobbyists outnumber lawmakers five to one this session.
The stack of lobbying dollars is expected to grow higher when the records from the last month of the legislative session are taken into account. The final list of lobbyists hired by moneyed interests for the session won’t become apparent until June 15, when all the records are due. In particular, the late introduction of a measure to ask voters to increase taxes on nicotine and tobacco is getting a flurry of attention in the final days before Friday’s adjournment.
But one thing is clear from the analysis already: The most lobbied bills for the first three months of the four-month lawmaking term do not match the legislation that received the most attention from the public. The controverial measures to make it harder to claim vaccination exemptions, a revamp sex education in schools, and allow judges to take away guns didn’t rise to the top in terms of lobbying.
“What legislators are (working on), versus what lobbyists are getting hired for, versus what citizens are talking about often don’t align,” said House Speaker KC Becker, a Boulder Democrat.
Business interests dominate the list
The paid family leave bill attracted lobbying from businesses large and small; various government entities including school districts, cities and counties; and associations that represent numerous entities, like chambers of commerce.
Of the 215 who tracked the legislation, only 35 of the lobbying clients were listed as supporting the bill, according to state records, compared with nearly twice as many opposing it. Most listed their positions as “monitoring” or “amending” the measure.
Eventually, Winter and the other primary sponsor, Sen. Angela Williams, D-Denver, agreed to remove implementation of the program from the bill, and settle for a study of how such a program could work. The House is considering the revised bill in its final week. All lobbying reported thus far focused on the state Senate, where the legislation was introduced March 7.
One bill that drew significant attention from the business community and the public was the sweeping overhaul of regulations for the oil and gas industry. The measure, Senate Bill 181, gave the state and local governments more control over energy development.
More than 180 people testified at an initial hearing that lasted until 2 a.m. Among them was Erin Martinez, the Firestone woman who lost her husband and brother when their house exploded because of a leaking gas line in 2017.
Martinez, who hired a lobbyist to track the bill, was one of the 110 clients who paid someone to influence the legislation for them. Headwaters Strategies reported receiving $6,000 from Martinez in March for lobbying services.
Ellen Dumm, a spokeswoman hired by Martinez, said the Firestone woman wanted to make sure her concerns were represented before the General Assembly, particularly when the bill went before the full Senate.
“She had some very specific ideas of what she wanted in there, and she wasn’t going to back off on it, like making sure the flow lines were accurately mapped, and local government, if they wanted it, could have a say,” Dumm said. “She called Headwaters, they didn’t call her.”
For Becker, a lead sponsor of the bill, the lobbying was significant. “The thing that I have felt was the most heavily lobbied was oil and gas.”
And she’s quick to note problems in the state’s lobbying laws that make it difficult for legislators to get a good sense of where pressure is coming from. The law only requires lobbyists to report their activities once a month. This means as many as 45 days could elapse between when the lobbying takes place and the disclosure.
“You don’t often even know what’s getting lobbied,” Becker said. “You can go on the Secretary of State’s website and look, and it’s not real time.”
Big attention, but less lobbying on some legislation
Paid lobbyists aren’t carrying the water on some bills, however. Instead, the public is showing up.
“Some of these bills that affect individuals, not necessarily companies or professions, they don’t have lobbyists,” said lobbyist Mike Beasley, who represents a variety of business clients. “They have to gather together as volunteers and come in here.”
Lobbyists reported representing only 17 clients on House Bill 1312, the immunizations legislation, and none of them opposed the bill. The breakdown could change when reports for April lobbying activity are filed in mid-May.
Instead, when it came up for a committee hearing in mid-April, hundreds of mothers with children in tow showed up to testify against it. The hearing lasted until nearly 4 a.m. A subsequent House floor debate on the same bill lasted until 3:30 a.m. And parents continued to show up at the Capitol daily to monitor the measure as it moved to the Senate floor this week.
Other controversial legislation also saw little lobbying. For instance, lobbyists reported representing 46 clients on the red flag bill to allow guns to be taken away from people deemed a danger to themselves or others. Only eight of those clients opposed House Bill 1177.
And likewise, only 23 organizations hired lobbyists — nine of them opposed — on joining the national popular vote compact. Opponents are gathering signatures in an effort to ask voters in 2020 to repeal the law.
Only seven of the 46 clients who are tracking a bill making changes in sex education are listed as opposed. But House Bill 1032 is another measure that drew crowds of parents for lengthy committee hearings.
Beasley, a veteran lobbyist, said individuals are capitalizing on the ability organize online via social media this session. “I’ve never seen so many individuals, parents, folks from different parts of Colorado wanting to come in, not necessarily to complain… but to educate all of these new legislators,” he said. “And to me, that’s a good thing.”
But while lawmakers “get a lot of emails on the hot-button issues,” as Winter put it, “when you go to a town hall, when you go door to door, it’s the bread-and-butter issues that they want us to work on.”
With the sex ed and vaccination bills both awaiting approval in the backlogged Senate, opponents may still get their way in defeating the measures — without hiring pricy lobbyists.