The total that special interests spend on lobbying Colorado lawmakers appears destined to set records, despite the potential for a shortened session amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The payments made by various corporations and interest groups to lobbyists topped $29.6 million from July 2019 through the end of March, according to a Colorado Sun analysis of lobbyist filings. With three months left to report in the fiscal year, it’s possible that spending could top last year’s record $36.4 million.
The pandemic is only amplifying the influence game at the Capitol as lawmakers prepare to return May 18 to a scrambled policy landscape and the need to rewrite the entire $30 billion state budget. The session is expected to last three weeks and it’s unclear whether lawmakers will end the term or come back later.
More than 600 lobbyists and lobbying firms reported representing more than 1,000 clients through the end of March. Lobbyists will report their April activity on May 15.
For the first half of the session, health care interests — including hospitals, insurers and pharmaceutical companies — dominated the spending. The industry accounted for 21% of the direct spending on lobbying through the end of March, the analysis showed. The $6.3 million spent is more than double the next highest industry, K-12 and higher education at $2.6 million.
A public option insurance measure that was withdrawn earlier this week was one of the most lobbied bills by all industries. Health-related businesses and interest groups are also lobbying heavily on a bill to increase drug-pricing transparency, a consumer cost-sharing study and a bill on substance abuse treatment.
The focus on health care is not expected to change as the response to COVID-19 remains the top issue for lawmakers upon their return. In addition, much of the state’s annual budget is related to health care, making the discussion about how to close a $3 billion shortfall crucial for the industry.
“COVID has significantly changed our legislative agenda,” said House Speaker KC Becker, a Boulder Democrat. “These are unprecedented circumstances that limited the ability and time for the legislature to meet, and limited the ability to fund anything. Attentions are directed elsewhere.”
“Health care is always the top issue”
Health associations, hospitals, health insurers, pharmaceutical companies and other related businesses are typically among the top spenders lobbying the legislature. The industry spent $7.4 million for the 2019 session with the sums increasing each of the past five years.
“What we’ve seen over the past several years is that health care is always the top issue,” said Katherine Mulready, senior vice president and chief strategy officer for the Colorado Hospital Association.
In the past nine months, the group spent more than $118,000 on lobbying, working on bills ranging from vaccination to medical providers. “As a rough approximation, about 15% of all legislation is health care legislation,” Mulready said.
The hospital association isn’t the top spender among health-related groups, however. That’s the Colorado Medical Society, which spent $142,000 through March representing doctors in the state. The group is supporting measures to regulate nicotine and several measures dealing with substance abuse, among others.
Looking ahead to the session’s restart, the industry is poised to be a key player as lawmakers focus on how to lower health care costs for consumers and on economic recovery measures related to the pandemic.
“We know health care affordability is going to continue to be an issue,” Mulready said of the session. “But what we also know is that COVID is going to have lasting effects, and access to care is also going to be a bigger issue. Because COVID, frankly, is having a devastating impact on the entire health care sector, including hospitals.”
She estimated the pandemic will have a $3.1 billion impact on Colorado hospitals, about the same as the state’s budget shortfall, and federal aid will only cover 20% to 25% of that impact.
Public option bill off the table after big lobbying spending
One of the major legislative efforts that drew lobbyists attention was a bill to create a government-mandated health insurance option for the public run through private companies. Through the end of March, House Bill 1349 was the third most lobbied measure this session, with more than 100 businesses and interest groups deploying more than 150 lobbyists and lobbying firms.
On Monday, the sponsors announced they’d withdraw the measure because response to the pandemic is the new legislative focus.
All the lobbying spending came despite the fact that the bill wasn’t introduced until March 5, nine days before the legislature took a break. But the opposition began with TV ads in December that continued into March, as well as mailers sent in January.
Partnership for America’s Health Care Future spent $4.4 million on advertising opposing the public option at the same time it paid $104,000 to Forbes Tate Partners, a Washington, D.C., lobbying firm. That firm reported that its client spent another $107,000 on consulting and data.
The partnership is funded by insurance companies, health care providers, chambers of commerce, the Colorado Farm Bureau and others. “I’ve only been in the legislature for three years but this is by far the most heavily lobbied bill I’ve experienced,” said Rep. Dylan Roberts, the Democratic bill sponsor. “The TV commercials that they were running were running two to three weeks into our (coronavirus) break.”
More than half the groups or companies lobbying on the public option bill opposed it, including the Colorado Hospital Association. But the opposition wasn’t limited to health-related clients. It included business interests such as the Farm Bureau, Americans for Prosperity, the Colorado Contractors Association and the Tourism Industry of Colorado.
Only 17 clients supported the measure, including the national nonprofit Sixteen Thirty Fund, a Democratic-backed group that spent nearly $11 million in Colorado in the 2018 election.
Through the end of March, Sixteen Thirty paid $54,000 to Frontline Public Affairs for lobbying on the public option bill, paid family leave and a couple of other bills. The lawmakers sponsoring a bill to require businesses to provide paid sick and medical leave for workers dropped their legislation last week.
The most lobbied bill this session is not health care related
Despite the focus on health care, the most lobbied bill through March was a measure to prevent employers from firing workers who use legal substances, such as marijuana, during non-working hours. Nearly 170 businesses and interest groups employed more than 140 lobbyists with most opposing House Bill 1089, which was defeated unanimously in its first committee.
The second most lobbied bill would regulate arbitration and drew more than 110 lobbyists representing more than 110 businesses and interest groups. That measure passed the Senate, but it’s unclear what will happen in the House.
Only one of the top 15 lobbied bills has become law, a measure on regulating short-term rentals. Four failed in committees, and four passed out of their original chamber.
The future of the lingering bills and other measures awaiting committee hearings remains in doubt. “We’re not sending each other bills that the other chamber isn’t going to pass,” said Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat. “I do think both chambers are going to want to limit what we work on to be relatively narrow in scope.”