The aggressive agenda pursued by Colorado’s Democratic-controlled legislature this year – including bills on oil and gas regulation, family leave policies, climate change and health care – contributed to record spending on lobbying.
Business interests, associations, nonprofits and other groups spent more than $36.4 million on lobbyists in fiscal year 2019 to influence Colorado lawmakers and government agencies. The total is up 9% from the $33.4 million spent the year before.
“2019 was one of the most challenging legislative sessions,” said Don Knox, who manages the Colorado Lobbyists Association and 22 other associations. “It’s a tough year for business.”
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The spending to influence policy in Colorado — as recorded in required lobbying income reports — steadily increased over the past five years. The 2019 numbers are 22 percent higher than in 2015.
More than 600 firms and individuals representing more than 1,000 clients registered to lobby the legislature and state government in fiscal year 2019, according to state records analyzed by The Colorado Sun. The top 10 recipients of lobbying income are all firms that employ multiple lobbyists, with six taking in more than $1 million.
The spending in fiscal year 2019 significantly outpaced that of the previous year during the legislative session. In fact, lobbying spending topped $4 million in the months of March and April as lawmakers grappled with oil and gas regulations, a bill on paid family leave, marijuana legislation and more.
Secretary of State Jena Griswold, who campaigned against big money in politics, said the level of spending is concerning, because only large organizations can afford to pay for lobbyists.
“I really do think that Coloradans feel that their politicians are beholden to big-money special interests,” she said in an interview. “We’re seeing a lot of money coming in, and we have to increase transparency as much as we can.”
The top spending industries included cannabis and oil and gas
Cannabis businesses spent nearly $1.4 million compared with nearly $1 million in 2018, for instance. The laws governing the sale and use of recreational and medicinal marijuana faced legislative review this year, and the industry also sought to enact laws vetoed by former Gov. John Hickenlooper. Measures to add autism to the list of conditions for which medical marijuana can be recommended, allowing publicly traded companies to invest in cannabis businesses and to create marijuana “tasting rooms” were successful.
The oil and gas industry spent more than $1 million, up 47% from the year before.
A significant portion of that increase came from the American Petroleum Institute, a national industry organization, which ranked as the second-highest spender at more than $236,000. Of that, $150,000 went to three lobbyists with Denver-based Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, one of the most prominent national lobbying firms in the country. Those three lobbyists worked only on the legislation to overhaul the regulation of oil and gas drilling in Colorado, which was amended in the House to benefit the industry after passing the Senate.
“Senate Bill 181 is the most sweeping piece of energy legislation passed in Colorado in decades,” Lynn Granger, executive director of the Colorado Petroleum Council, the local affiliate of the national group, said in a statement. “Energy issues remain at the forefront of public policy in Colorado and we are committed to having a voice in those discussions.”
Other legislation attracted considerable attention from the business community. A bill to create a statewide paid family leave program generated the most activity, with more than 200 lobbyists representing nearly 250 clients. Heavily lobbied measures also included an equal-pay act; prohibiting asking about criminal history on job applications; and allowing local governments to set their own minimum wage.
In the end, legislators scaled back the family leave bill to study the issue, and other measures were likewise amended to address the concerns of special interests, as is common practice in the lawmaking process.
Knox said he anticipates even higher spending next year. “I think lobbyists are gonna bill more in 2020,” Knox said. “Because it’s still single-party control. The best situation is when there’s divided government because things move a little more rationally.”
Xcel Energy topped the spending list for 2019, a position the utility company has held since 2015. Key issues for the company included renewal of the Public Utilities Commission and a bill that set carbon emissions reduction targets, both of which ended up in single bill that the company supported.
An Xcel spokeswoman noted in an email that the utility serves 1.4 million Coloradans and is working to reduce carbon emissions. She called 2019 “a historic year for Colorado energy policy.”
“We appreciate the opportunity to have worked with the new administration, legislative leaders, our communities and a broad range of stakeholders to strengthen our commitment to reducing carbon, while establishing a process at the Public Utilities Commission to ensure reliability and cost affordability for our customers,” Xcel’s Michelle Aguayo wrote.
Several organizations lobbying on health care interests were among the top 10 spenders. They included the Colorado Medical Society, Colorado Trial Lawyers Association and Anthem, the health insurance company. Democrats approved bills aimed at reducing health care costs through a reinsurance program, curbing prescription drug costs and limiting surprise medical billing.
COPIC, a medical malpractice insurance provider, paid $200,000 to Nexus Policy Group to lobby in support of two bills, one on renewing professional review committees that impacts doctors, and another creating a process for patients and providers to discuss adverse health care outcomes. Both bills passed.
The Colorado Competitive Council increased its spending 22 percent over 2018, as the business coalition affiliated with the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce opposed measures on paid family leave, rent control, allowing local governments to set their own minimum wage, and climate-change legislation, among others.
Conservation Colorado paid more than $84,000 to Denver firm Green Corps to lobby on a single bill, House Bill 1261 to limit greenhouse gas emissions. The environmental advocacy organization employed other lobbyists, including some of its own employees and Siegel Public Affairs, to support the oil and gas regulation bill, among other legislation. All told, the organization nearly tripled its 2018 lobbying spending to $180,000.
The numbers come from monthly reports filed to the secretary of state’s office by lobbyists. The Sun’s analysis removed payments by lobbying firms to their employees and made best efforts to not double count income resulting from subcontracting, which often skews the totals. The analysis covers July 2018 through June 2019, a period that includes the six months before the legislative session starts, the session and the time when the governor signs or vetoes bills.
The top lobbyists are a harder target to paint
Determining the top lobbyists is more difficult, because, as the Sun has reported, firms and individuals aren’t consistent in how they report subcontracting. Some firms report income from public relations or legal work as well as lobbying, others don’t.
Colorado Legislative Services, which took in nearly $1.8 million, had four lobbyists working on behalf of 35 clients. The most lucrative client: The Colorado Oil and Gas Association, which paid the firm nearly $110,000.
Brandeberry McKenna Public Affairs ranked second with $1.5 million in revenue from state-level lobbying, of which more than $168,000 came from the city of Denver and another $125,000 came from the Regional Transportation District. That firm employs three lobbyists and listed 34 clients.
The legislature approved reforms to the lobbyist reporting system in the spring, and the secretary of state’s office is working on creating a new software program to accommodate the changes.
The new law requires lobbyists to report new clients and bill positions within 72 hours instead of once a month. It also eliminates loopholes that allowed some lawyers and lobbyists to report payments from law firms instead of clients.
Griswold said the changes should improve transparency. “I am not saying that lobbying is necessarily a bad thing, but money being used to influence politics in the dark is a bad thing,” said Griswold, who worked in Washington, D.C., for Hickenlooper’s administration. “So we want to shine light on all the different ways that money is influencing politics, whether it’s given directly to a candidate, whether it’s funneled through a super PAC, whether it’s going through a lobbyist. Coloradans deserve transparency.”
Griswold is convening a working group to advise her office on lobbyist reporting. She said the new software system will combine lobbyist reporting with campaign finance, so the public can more easily trace how money is influencing elected officials.
Updated 9:50 a.m. Aug. 20, 2019: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the name of a national oil and gas industry organization. It is the American Petroleum Institute.