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Caution tape is draped around what's normally a busy cafeteria at the Colorado Capitol. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The normally bustling-with-activity basement cafeteria is draped in caution tape. The lobbies outside the House and Senate chambers, where spittle flies and influence peddlers jostle for a view of lawmakers, are closed. Railings in the Colorado Capitol corridors, where real estate can be hard to come by because they are lined with lobbyists, are mostly empty. 

Coronavirus has, at the very least, relocated statehouse dealmaking.

Lawmakers, legislative staff and journalists were granted access to COVID-19 vaccines ahead of the resumption of the 2020 lawmaking term on Tuesday. Lobbyists were not. As a result, many of them are trying to limit their time in the once-bustling statehouse, even if there is nothing stopping them from being in the building. 

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That means informal conversations and “do-you-have-a-minute” meetings, where a lot of important policies get ironed out, will likely happen infrequently this year. And lobbyists, while sometimes reviled for their role representing special interests and deep-pocketed clients, often have more policy expertise and experience at the Capitol than Colorado’s part-time lawmakers.

“The way that problems get solved at the Capitol is you bump into the other side in the hallway and you get talking,” said Scott Wasserman, who runs the Bell Policy Center, a liberal economic advocacy and research organization. “I really worry about the lack of casual, informal back-and-forth. It’s going to make the sausage-making really difficult.”

The most powerful people at the statehouse this year will be those with a coronavirus vaccination and a deep Rolodex. “The people who have the upper hand are the people who have these legislators’ cell phone (numbers),” said Hannah Collazo, who runs Environment Colorado and plans to avoid the Capitol as much as possible this year out of health concerns.

Lobbyists gather in the room immediately outside the doors to the state House chamber at the Colorado Capitol early in the 2020 legislative session. The space has been closed because of the pandemic. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Many fear that the pandemic will only intensify the power dynamics at the Capitol and deepen ideological divides. More than $40 million was spent on lobbying during the 2020 legislative session in Colorado, and at stake this year are hundreds of millions of dollars in stimulus spending, a potential transportation package and an overhaul of the state’s health care system.

That’s not to mention the effects COVID-19 may have on the public’s ability to engage. 

Don’t like what someone has to say? Just ignore their text or call because they probably won’t show up in person to corner you.

“What it really does is it further enhances the power of those who have it and weakens those who don’t even more,” said Greg Brophy, a Republican former state senator who now works as a lobbyist.

A sign blocking off seating in the Colorado Capitol on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

State lawmakers are aware of the access problems lobbyists and members of the public will have this year, but they’re mostly brushing off the concerns and chalking them up to the myriad of changes people have had to endure during the pandemic.

“I’m empathetic to what they’re talking about, but I think every single person is adjusting to this new normal and I just think that there are creative ways that we can still connect,” said House Majority Leader Daneya Esgar, a Pueblo Democrat. “We’re not saying they can’t come into the building, we’re just putting in a lot of safety precautions to keep people safe.”

Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat, said he thinks lobbyists will still have their voices heard.

“I think they have a point. But, then again, I don’t feel like the lobbyists are having trouble getting a hold of me right now,” he said. “It doesn’t feel to me like they are just sitting at home and just wondering what’s happening. They’re still very engaged. That’s their job. They know how to get a hold of us.”

But Sandra Hagen Solin, head of the Capitol Solutions lobbying firm, said she found it nearly impossible to effectively get in touch with lawmakers without being in the building during last year’s brief pandemic lawmaking term and a subsequent special session in December. 

“I had made attempts to interact with legislators by text and email,” she said. “There’s just time lag. They were certainly receptive, but there was sometimes — often times — a delay. Time is of the essence in the legislative process.” 

Loren Furman, who has lobbied at the Colorado Capitol for 21 sessions, said off-the-cuff gatherings are “how the work gets done.” She can’t remember a year where such meetings didn’t play an important role in crafting legislation. 

“You can get an awful lot done in the hallways here,” said Rep. Chris Kennedy, a Lakewood Democrat.

Lobbyists gather outside of the Colorado Senate chambers on April. 30, 2019. This was a typical Colorado Capitol scene before the pandemic. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Furman, too, found that lobbying from afar wasn’t effective enough. She ended up abandoning her plans to work from home last year when a bill eliminating tax breaks for businesses was rushed through at the end of the 2020 lawmaking term. Being at the Capitol in person was the only way to do her job. 

“You have to have that interaction,” said Furman, who represents the Colorado Chamber of Commerce.

Rep. Matt Soper, a Delta Republican, says lawmakers often rely on the deep well of policy knowledge that lobbyists have, which makes up for the limited resources provided to state legislators.

“Really, it’s just us and then a part-time aide for the session,” Soper said. “It’s not like we have a vast, professional staff like Congress. So the lobby does become that institutional knowledge. If they’re not in the hallway and they’re not able to connect with us easily, it certainly frustrates the lawmaking process.”

State lawmakers in Colorado are term limited — eight years in the House and eight years in the Senate. Some lobbyists, like Furman, have been in the building much longer than the average statehouse politician.

“I was an aide here in 2005,” Soper said. “I’d say 60% of the lobby is the same as (it was in) 2005.”

And this year there won’t be much time wasted at the Capitol, meaning it will be hard for lobbyists and members of the public to stay away if they want to influence legislation.  

A sign blocking off the Colorado House lobby on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021. The area would be packed with lobbyists and constituents before the pandemic. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Democratic leadership says there won’t be the normal slow-walk into the lawmaking term. Between coronavirus stimulus and tackling legislation that was left on the cutting room floor last year when COVID-19 arrived in Colorado, there isn’t time to waste. 

“We’re not going to sort of, like, slowly heat up the legislative machine like you normally do,” Fenberg said. “We’re going to hit the ground running.”

The legislature gaveled in for the 2021 legislative session in January, but then took a month-long break in the hope that the pandemic would ease. Normally, the first month of the lawmaking term is spent negotiating and putting final touches on measures. This year, legislators unofficially used the month off to do that work.

That’s also making lobbying more difficult because finalized bills are being introduced before interest groups have a chance to provide feedback on them.

“They continued to be hidden from public view,” Brophy said. “But people are still working on those and cutting deals and none of it is transparent at all.”

Members of the public may also have more difficulty accessing the lawmaking process this year. They are allowed in the Capitol, but in-person interactions are being discouraged. One of the first measures the legislature passed this year was to enhance remote testimony, but Capitol insiders say there’s nothing quite like a constituent looking a lawmaker in the eye and asking them to vote for or against a bill. 

Soper, the Republican state representative from the Western Slope, remembers when scores of people showed up to testify on legislation around increasing the state’s school vaccination rates, tightening gun-control legislation and changing the state’s sexual education curriculum. 

“That’s very impactful,” he said of the masses of people coming to have their voices heard. “That’s something that I as a legislator definitely take into consideration.”

The Colorado Sun — Desk: 720-432-2229 Jesse Paul is a political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is...

Thy Vo is a freelance journalist and former Colorado Sun staff member. Twitter: @thyanhvo