DENVER — Colorado state Sen. Leroy Garcia hit a powerful force — the well-funded energy lobby — during the 2015 legislative session when he tried to make the board that regulates utility companies representative of the entire state.
“You can be up against 15 or 20 lobbyists easily,” Garcia said. “You’re spending your time talking to your colleagues about the facts, and they could be distorting that. They can work a committee pretty quick.”
Garcia’s House Bill 1319 died in a Senate kill committee. The Pueblo Democrat faced an uphill battle in the Republican-dominated Senate, but the lobby against his bill didn’t help.
Xcel Energy spent $205,758 during the 2015 legislative session on lobbyists.
That was more than any other single interest during the year, according to lobbyist disclosure information released for the first time last month by the Secretary of State’s Office in a fashion that could be analyzed in a database.
A Gazette analysis of the data showed that combined electricity generating companies spent almost $450,000. Colorado Springs Public Utilities spent $43,750 of that.
The oil and gas industry spent more than half a million dollars. The telecommunications industry dropped nearly $400,000.
It’s all part of an intricate system of relationships and power broking that plays out under the Gold Dome every year from January to May.
Lobbyists can be hired overnight in response to big bills, with monthly rates that range from $1,000 to $25,000.
“Xcel Energy provides service for more than 60 percent of the state’s population, we are the largest property taxpayer in the state and we are proud to be one of the largest employers,” Gabriel Romero, a spokesman for Xcel, said in a statement. “There are many different ideas introduced every year at the legislature that could affect our costs and ultimately, rates to our customers and the services we provide them. It is our responsibility to be engaged.”
In addition to opposing a handful of bills, according to the data, Xcel lobbyists supported four workforce development bills that had bipartisan support.
Romero declined to talk about specific bills the company lobbied for or against.
Garcia said it can be hard to overcome a powerful lobby — but it’s not impossible.
“Lobbyists don’t control the General Assembly,” he said. “Many times by their mere presence, they get the reverse outcomes because people see through that.”
It’s easy to see why a company would shell out $100,000 on lobbyists for five months of work.
In 2015, two bills offered tax exemptions to the telecommunications industry that would have meant millions for companies like AT&T, Comcast Cable Company and CenturyLink. The first, as introduced, would have increased the cap on an existing tax credit from $1 million per year to $10 million per year.
The tax credit is an incentive for companies to expand broadband services to areas with populations of fewer than 30,000. Lawmakers from both parties who supported the bill said increased incentives were the only way to make high-speed Internet expansion feasible in rural areas. The second would have created an intangible property tax exemption for the telecommunications industry worth millions.
Those opposed to the bill called it a tax giveaway. Both bills died despite the efforts of telecommunication industry lobbyists.
Comcast spent $119,583 on lobbyists in 2015, according to the records, more than any other telecom company.
That disclosure included the salary of a full-time Comcast employee who registered as a lobbyist.
Cindy Parsons, a vice president of public relations for Comcast, said the media and technology businesses are heavily regulated.
“It is important for our customers, our employees, and our shareholders that we work with policymakers on issues that affect our business, and our lobbyists in Colorado help share our views at the legislative and administrative levels of state government when issues impacting our business arise,” Parsons said in a statement.
Lobbyists meet one-on-one with lawmakers, testify in hearings, and fill the antechambers of the House and Senate to watch floor proceedings and send business cards to lawmakers through the sergeant-at-arms guarding the proceedings. Some lawmakers don’t accept cards from lobbyists while votes are being conducted on the floor.
Some lobbyists lean toward Democrats and some toward Republicans. A contract-lobbyist’s relationship with lawmakers is essentially what is for sale. The closer the relationship with and the higher-powered the lawmaker, the more expensive the lobbyist.
Colorado laws have tamped down on the lobbyist wining and dinning that occurs in some states. Amendment 41, a 2006 ballot initiative, strictly banned lobbyists from spending anything on lawmakers. For everyone else who isn’t a registered lobbyist, the limit in 2015 is $59 per-person, per-year, with a handful of exceptions.
“In Colorado the legislative process is a very clean, ethical process,” said former Speaker of the House Chuck Berry, who represented El Paso County in the Statehouse for 14 years. “You don’t have money being passed under the table to get votes.”
Today Berry runs the Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry, one of the state’s most powerful organizations when it comes to lobbying. He’s no longer one of the group’s four full-time registered lobbyists. But for a time, he was.
CACI (pronounced kay-cee) spent $128,250 in 2015, and the name carries weight at the Statehouse.
Berry said he’s proud of that.
“Loren Furman, who is our lead lobbyist, I think she’s the best pro-business lobbyist at the Statehouse there is,” Berry said. “There’s already extensive regulation … and new ones are always proposed that just make it that much more difficult to do business and for the workforce.”
CACI lobbies on more than just business regulation and supports investment in infrastructure, and workforce development. In fact CACI reported supporting, opposing, amending or monitoring more than 200 bills in 2015.
But Berry said the role of lobbyists at the General Assembly has changed dramatically since he was in office from 1985 to 1998.
“When I was Speaker of the House, we did not have term limits, so the key legislators tended to serve for a longer period of time,” Berry said, who was Speaker for eight years. “Since I left only one person has served more than a two-year term (as Speaker). You’ve got constant turnover in those key positions and it’s not just Speaker of the House, it’s committee chairs.”
That void of institutional knowledge and memory makes both lobbyists and bureaucrats more powerful and more important.
Sen. Michael Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs, said there are lobbyists on both sides of the political spectrum that he trusts and those he does not.
“Term limits have made lobbyists sadly invaluable,” said Merrifield, who served eight years in the House before he was elected to the Senate in 2014. “There is not anymore statesmen or women you can go to and say give me advice. … Some of the old-guard lobbyists are as old as I am. Some are even older.”
Merrifield, 68, said the oil and gas lobby is particularly powerful.
“It makes it obvious why it’s so extremely difficult to bring forth any legislation that brings forth any restrictions on oil and gas development in response to health and environment concerns,” he said.
But given the high-stakes of regulation, favorable tax policy and even employment law, the investment in lobbyists makes sense for most corporations.
“I’m actually surprised that companies don’t pay more for lobbyists,” Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, said. “As government grows and comes to regulate more aspects of our lives, businesses can be shut down by regulations. … It’s frightening in many ways to me how much our local economy depends on what politicians do.”
Hill experienced the unique lobby in 2014 and some in 2015 from company Uber Technologies, a ride-sharing company that is pressing in on the traditional taxi market and across the nation is finding itself at the center of new regulation attempts. Uber spent $139,189 on lobbyists in 2015 data shows.
Hill was among those who opposed a bill attempting to regulate Uber and it’s twin company Lyft (which records show spent $18,000 on lobbyists in 2015) in 2014.
In the case of Uber and Lyft, state-level decisions could literally shut down their companies or cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The data released by the Secretary of State’s Office goes back to 1995 and includes monthly incomes from lobbyists as well as what they expense to their companies.
But the data is imprecise.
Because many companies hire contract lobby firms that have several employees, sometimes the same pot of money is counted twice. And the rules for who has to disclose what income are not exactly clear.
Katherine Mulready, vice president of legislative policy for the Colorado Hospital Association, said her organization probably over-reports expenditures and errs on the side of caution when it comes to registering as lobbyists. The Hospital Association represents more than 100 member hospitals and health systems throughout the state.
It’s lobbyist disclosure of $144,002 in 2015 included part of Mulready’s salary and the organization’s chief financial officer.
“The approach that CHA has always had is it’s better to over-report than under-report so we don’t get into trouble,” Mulready said. “We do spend a lot of resources at the capitol, and our members expect that of us.”
In 2015, one big issue for CHA was an effort — supported by the governor and the speaker of the house — to remove the revenue collected through the hospital provider fee from the general fund and put it in an enterprise fund instead. The move would have kept the state from triggering tax refunds under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, but also protected the fund from being raided to support state government.
Mulready said that because the hospital provider fee was put in place in 2009, many lawmakers there now don’t know the history of how the fee came to exist or what it does.
“For us, the whole enterprise idea is especially hard to communicate,” Mulready said. “The idea of moving it so that the accounting looks a bit more accurate. It was a hard message to explain, and I anticipate we will continue to explain it in 2016.”
This article was written by Megan Schrader from The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.) and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.