Colorado lobbyists were paid nearly $70M in the last year. These 5 bills show their influence …

Money spent on lobbying in Colorado again hit a record high this year — but the tally only begins to hint at the ways the deluge steers policy through the statehouse.

In all, the $69.6 million paid to Colorado lobbyists in the most recent fiscal year, which ended June 30 and included this year’s legislative session, slightly exceeded what was spent on the fight for the U.S. Senate seat on the state’s ballot in 2022. That annual lobbying tab has more than doubled since the 2012-13 fiscal year, and three of the five past years saw 10% annual bumps in spending, according to lobbying records maintained by the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office.

And as the spending increases, so does the attention put on lawmakers.

“The more money you have usually translates to a louder voice in politics,” said outgoing Senate President Steve Fenberg, a Democrat. “I think that’s true in elections, but it’s also true in the lobbying arena. But I don’t say that necessarily as a way to judge it — it’s just simply a fact of how things work.”

Senate President Steve Fenberg talks with staff in the Senate Chamber as the Colorado General Assembly starts its 2024 session in the Colorado State Capitol in Denver on Jan. 10, 2024. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)
Senate President Steve Fenberg talks with staff in the Senate Chamber as the Colorado General Assembly starts its 2024 session in the Colorado State Capitol in Denver on Jan. 10, 2024. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

Both during and outside the 2024 session, which ran from January through early May, companies, trade associations, nonprofit advocacy groups, local governments and other outside interests spent the money to help advance policies they supported, to try to thwart those they opposed, and to influence changes to bills that would affect them directly. The spending isn’t a monolith, and the money often crashes against itself as competing interests try to sway lawmakers to the spenders’ desired outcomes.

But spending on lobbying highlights the growing stakes moneyed interests see in influencing policy one way or the other.

“Special interests are able to exercise an undue amount of influence on the legislators and the path forward for bills because they’re able to be on the ground, be in our legislators’ ears, build those relationships,” said Aly Belknap, the executive director of Colorado Common Cause, a government and ethics watchdog.

Though lobbying influenced hundreds of bills this year — and several during a short special session on property tax relief in November — five stand out for the amount of attention they received from lobbyists. They ranked highest in terms of the number of positions registered, with the outsized attention leading to varying policy outcomes:

  • Senate Bill 165, which sought to establish new regulations aimed at reducing emissions of air pollutants, including by the oil and gas sector.
  • House Bill 1014, which proposed changing consumer protection law to make it easier for people to pursue claims of unfair or deceptive trade practices.
  • House Bill 1152, which aimed to spur more development of accessory dwelling units, like garage apartments and granny flats, on single-family properties.
  • House Bill 1007, which sought to eliminate occupancy limits on the number of unrelated adults who could live in a home, except for safety or health reasons.
  • Senate Bill 81, which aimed to speed up the phase-out of the use of PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals,” in products sold in Colorado.

Three of those five bills — on ADUs, occupancy limits and PFAS restrictions — became law, though not always before significant amendments reshaped them during the legislative process. The consumer protection bill, which came under heavy opposition, died in the Senate.

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And the most-lobbied of the five, the air quality measure, was tabled by its sponsors as part of a much-heralded compromise package that left sponsors claiming victory, while giving special interests, including the oil and gas industry, cause to drop a threatened war at the ballot box this fall.

The number of positions registered on a bill is an imperfect measure of just how much work is being focused on the proposal, but it serves as a proxy for general interest. Sometimes a languishing bill gradually collects positions, while in other cases a single interest can file several positions, reinforcing or shifting its stance as negotiations progress. State reporting requirements do not include spending associated with individual bills.

PFAS bill illustrates shaping of legislation

Lobbyists are ever-present in the State Capitol whenever the legislature is in session. Sen. Lisa Cutter, a Jefferson County Democrat, jokes that during debate on particularly contentious legislation, she can’t leave the Senate chamber without stepping over a lobbyist — side doors included.

The hallways in the Colorado State Capitol building are filled again with lobbyists and visitors as COVID-19 restrictions have been easing. The Colorado General Assembly convenes as the body enters the final days of the regular session on June 4, 2021 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo By Kathryn Scott/Special to The Denver Post)
The hallways in the Colorado State Capitol building were filled again with lobbyists and visitors after COVID-19 restrictions were eased and the General Assembly entered the final days of its regular session on June 4, 2021, in Denver. (Photo By Kathryn Scott/Special to The Denver Post)

“I think it’s gotten worse and worse. I really do,” said Cutter, who was first elected to the House in 2018, when lobbying firms reported about $46.7 million in income — about two-thirds of what it is now. She was elected to the Senate in 2022.

Like many lawmakers, Cutter doesn’t see lobbying as a negative unto itself. But she received a front-row view of the activity this year when she ran Senate Bill 81. As passed, it adds to the products being phased out in Colorado for containing intentionally added perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. Starting in 2026, it bans the sale of some consumer products, like cookware and ski wax, with PFAS, and another class of products is banned starting in 2028.

The chemicals have been given the “forever” moniker for how long they take to break down in the environment.

Cutter’s bill initially set out to fully ban the chemicals beginning in 2032. But the opposition to that goal was fierce, and the full ban was taken out of the bill at its first committee hearing in March. Cutter told The Denver Post then that she hoped to bring back a full ban in the future.

She estimated that she worked with some 70 official stakeholders, or interest groups who directly helped shape the bill. That included meeting with experts flown in from overseas and others who wanted to make sure the bill was workable.

In all, more than 100 entities would stake more than 870 official positions on the bill. Most registered positions signaled that the interested party was monitoring the bill, or neutral, while about 240 were to show they were seeking an amendment. Another 190 positions were in outright support, while 75 indicated outright opposition.

Cutter said most lobbyists raised legitimate concerns about the bill’s timeline, which products were included in its ban and what businesses should do with existing inventory. Lawmakers tucked a half-dozen amendments onto the measure on its way to the governor’s desk.

Others doubled down on their opposition by intensifying lobbying efforts, Cutter said.

“It’s kind of complicated, right? There’s some really great lobbyists that do some really great work for their clients — and add to our understanding to create a bill that’s workable and makes sense,” Cutter said, adding that this bill was a good example of that.

“Then there’s the lobby and the special interests that spend a bazillion dollars — lots of money — to try to prevent progress and prevent what we all really know is the right thing to be doing.”

Through the sponsors’ work with stakeholders and lobbyists, that bill became law. But another environmental bill Cutter worked on, Senate Bill 165, had a less direct fate.

Stalled air quality measure became part of armistice

More than 140 companies and interest groups registered more than 950 positions on SB-165 — more than half in opposition. In taking aim at energy industry emissions, especially during ozone season, critics contended it would “halt oil and gas production for three prime construction summer months every year,” in the words of former Republican congressman Bob Beauprez.

The bill was one of four proposals aimed at curbing emissions, and they were seen as another front in the ongoing fight over oil and gas regulations.

The fight went beyond policy debates in backrooms and on chamber floors. Opponents targeted lawmakers with ads over the measures, and they threatened to launch defensive ballot initiatives that would go around the legislature, taking the matter directly to voters.

To calm the waters, Gov. Jared Polis and legislative leaders introduced a pair of bills in exchange for industry and environmental groups setting aside the ballot initiatives and lawmakers abandoning the four bills, including SB-165.

Soon after the announced cease-fire, Dan Haley, the president and CEO of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, declared that “political and legislative stability and certainty is vital to our industry’s future success here, and we’re pleased to see our state’s political leaders share that vision.”

The group did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Dan Haley, president of Colorado Oil ...
Dan Haley, president of Colorado Oil and Gas Association, addresses the crowd during a rally on the west steps of the State Capitol in Denver on March 5, 2019. COGA was opposing a bill that would restrict the oil and gas industry’s activities and long has been active in lobbying at the Capitol. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Conservation Colorado was on the opposite side and “deeply involved” in that fight, the group’s CEO, Kelly Nordini, said. The number of positions taken, lobbyists involved and ad spending reflected and amplified behind-the-scenes debates, she said, as broad coalitions formed to find ways forward on environmental protections — without immediately sparking new battles.

“I’ve been in and around the Capitol a long time now, 20-plus years. And I would say it was one of the most complicated and intense and impactful sessions — in a good way — we’ve had in a long time,” Nordini said.

Fenberg joined with Cutter on a bill resulting from the compromise that instituted per-barrel production fees on the oil and gas industry to pay for environmental projects and infrastructure, as well as to support transit.

Fenberg, the Senate president, said industry groups can see some bills as “an existential threat,” which may be reflected in their lobbying activity. And if a bill like SB-165 hangs on the vine, it gives people more time to weigh in — a potential boon for lobbyists so long as a bill has any chance of passing.

“For the most part, we’re talking about businesses, and they make an ROI calculation,” Fenberg said, referring to a return on investment. “Spending $10,000 or $20,0000 on a lobbyist, versus something (that) could cost millions — that’s kind of a no-brainer.”

He highlighted one likely factor in the surge in spending on lobbyists in recent years: Democrats winning trifecta control of both legislative chambers and the governor’s office in the 2018 election, a dynamic that’s now entrenched. Since then, lobbying income has increased by nearly 50%, according to secretary of state records.

“You’re going to see more special interests and more business interests spending money on lobbyists when there’s large Democratic majorities,” Fenberg said, noting the party’s reputation for pursuing policies aimed at consumers. “… I will also say, the large dollars being spent on lobbying is more a reflection of the business development of the lobby corps and less about the level of influence these clients are having.”

Consumer protection bill’s opponents win out

Despite their general orientation, Democrats’ majorities don’t always ensure the success of consumer-focused legislation.

This year, Rep. Mike Weissman, an Aurora Democrat, ran House Bill 1014, which would have lowered the standard for which private attorneys could bring claims under the Consumer Protection Act to challenge unfair or deceptive trade practices. Weissman, in an earlier session, had passed a bill to set that standard for district attorneys and the attorney general.

Current case law around the Consumer Protection Act requires that the plaintiffs in a lawsuit prove widespread injury to meet the standard of “significant public impact.” The 1998 Colorado Supreme Court ruling establishing the standard “essentially killed CPA claims in Colorado,” Weissman said, because it meant plaintiffs needed to prove more pervasive effects than they would reasonably know as affected individuals.

Rep. Mike Weissman listens during a special session in the House at the Colorado State Capitol on Monday, November 20, 2023. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)
Rep. Mike Weissman listens during a special session in the House at the Colorado State Capitol on Monday, November 20, 2023. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

After passing the more liberal House by a wide margin, the bill died in a Senate committee. Some members expressed concerns that it would open the floodgates for legal claims and overburden businesses with litigation.

The bill drew the attention of energy companies, abortion rights advocates, homebuilders, the AARP, and others. In all, lobbyists for about 100 interests of all stripes registered more than 900 positions on the bill — more than half in explicit opposition.

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Weissman said in a recent interview that this type of law was fairly niche, allowing for speculation about what it might do if passed. He called the proposal a “simple, but fundamental — and, I think, misunderstood — change to the Colorado Consumer Protection Act.”

For all the opposition and attention it received, he said, the proposal simply would have brought Colorado’s consumer protection law in line with the more consumer-friendly standard used in dozens of other states, including staunchly conservative ones like Texas and South Carolina.

While different parties objected for different reasons, Weissman sees the connecting thread as special interests circling the wagons to protect their entrenched economic and political power.

“It’s when industry can’t put a price tag on something that they freak out the most,” he said.

Weissman also serves as an example of how the policy fights in the lobby of the Capitol translate to political fights at the ballot box. He ran for a state Senate seat in last month’s primary, facing heavy opposition from dark-money spenders.

But he overcame the tsunami of outside money opposing him and won the primary.

Housing bills part of successful land-use package

The other two bills that ranked high in positions taken this year were focused on housing. They stood out because so much of that lobbying activity reflected a different tactic: Outsized shows of support to help them win passage.

Rep. Manny Rutinel, a Commerce City Democrat, said supporters of House Bill 1007, which prohibits residential occupancy limits — a measure that has particular effect in college towns like Boulder and Fort Collins — “overwhelmed” the potential opposition. More than 880 positions were taken on that bill, and nearly 500 indicated support. Supporters included public health advocates, environmental groups, anti-poverty coalitions and unions.

Lobbying reports for House Bill 1152, which generally requires Front Range local governments to allow homeowners to build accessory dwelling units on their properties, showed a similar outpouring of support over other positions lobbyists could take.

Both became law and were part of a package of bills aimed at land-use reforms in the state that met with success after failing in grand fashion last year. Some other components of that package came under heavy, and sometimes successful, lobbying as local governments and other interests sought to limit their impact.

Colorado Senate Minority Leader Paul Lundeen speaks against a bill that would set for-cause eviction protections for renters
Colorado Senate Minority Leader Paul Lundeen speaks against a bill that would set for-cause eviction protections for renters across the state in the Senate chamber at the Colorado State Capitol in Denver on March 25, 2024. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

“It’s important for folks to understand that lobbying is an important part of the legislative process,” Rutinel said. “Unfortunately, there’s a power imbalance, just given the wealth and political capacity of different interest groups. That said, people who are interested in fighting on behalf of marginalized or underrepresented communities are making sure we’re engaging in it.”

During Rutinel’s first session this year, he carried several of the bills with the most positions taken. For the most part, he chalked that heavy activity up to opposition from groups that rely on the status quo for profits.

In general, he said, when there’s a large lobbying presence, “it means you have to calm the potential fears of your colleagues.”

Sen. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican and that chamber’s minority leader, prefers to see lobbying simply as advocacy, a less loaded term.

Lobbyists make up one more key body in policymaking, he said, and are just one piece of the overall picture of money in politics. He didn’t dismiss the amount of money being used to influence lawmakers, but he also highlighted the vast sums that flow into campaign coffers and dark-money groups that bombard the airwaves, and the overall influence of foundations that spend untold money to affect politics in the state and nationally.

“Developing good policy requires a clear vision into the actual consequences — not just the desired or intended consequences,” Lundeen said. “And we frequently hear that most clearly from the people and businesses most directly affected (through) their advocates, those folks in the lobby corps.”

The price of influence

Colorado law has stronger standards for transparency than many other states, though more work can always be done, said Belknap, the Colorado Common Cause leader. The group has championed campaign finance and transparency reforms for decades nationwide, including winning reforms to Colorado law.

“There’s definitely a rise in lobbying expenditures since those disclosure requirements began,” she said.

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Lobbying does play an important role in the legislative process, Belknap said, but she also drew a distinction between grassroots lobbying from concerned individuals and big corporate lobbying.

The heavy spending has the effect of raising the price to play in the legislative process, she said, creating a challenge for grassroots groups to get involved. For example, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association and Conservation Colorado each reported spending just over $100,000 on lobbying this past fiscal year, according to state records.

The Colorado Bankers Association was the most prolific single entity when it came to taking positions on bills this past session, including the five with the most attention laid on them.

In a statement, Alison Morgan, the association’s director of state government relations, noted that banks play a role throughout Coloradans’ lives and thus, it weighs in on “a variety of issues at the state and federal level.” Sometimes that’s just about signaling that it’s watching a bill or that it sees a single objectional provision tucked inside a larger proposal.

“CBA specifically focuses on creating a stronger economy,” Morgan wrote in a statement. It may oppose bills “that would negatively impact the economy and/or the financial well-being of banking customers and the communities which banks serve.”

Conservation Colorado prides itself on being one of the grassroots groups able to keep a day-in, day-out presence at the Capitol. It was also one of the most active interest groups on the five bills with the most lobbyist positions, having weighed in on all but Weissman’s consumer protection bill.

Colorado State representatives watch as a vote on SB23B-002 hits the board during a special session in the House at the Colorado State Capitol on Monday, November 20, 2023. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)
Rep. Mike Weissman, center, watches with other Colorado House representatives as a vote on SB23B-002 hits the board during a special session at the Colorado State Capitol on Monday, November 20, 2023. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

The positions don’t necessarily reflect the depth of involvement on particular bills, said Nordini, the head of the group. It took support positions on Cutter’s PFAS bill, for example, but left some of the detailed discussions to allies with more subject-matter expertise.

On others, such as the tabled air quality bill and related environmental regulations, Conservation Colorado was on the front line and, Nordini joked, “I have the scars to prove it.”

The work involves building relationships with lawmakers, building collective power through coalitions, gathering data and rallying individuals to testify about the impacts different bills are trying to address, she said. She counted this year’s session as among the most successful in recent history — and it certainly helps her cause that the House and Senate majorities share broad alignment on environmental interests.

After two-plus decades doing this work, Nordini said, she hopes it means something when Conservation Colorado weighs in.

“We lobbied because of the need to protect the public interest,” Nordini said. “And while we have a significant lobbying program and are the state’s largest environment program, we are quite outnumbered at the Capitol when it comes to lawyers and lobbyists and money for ads.”

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