Big Bucks Flow To Colorado Lobbyist Offices Steps From The Capitol
Colorado lobbyists reported earning 10 times as much as the lawmakers they worked to influence in 2017.
Nearly 600 lobbyists and lobbying firms reported earning a total of $30 million in fiscal year 2017, according to a KUNC analysis of Secretary of State data.
The state’s 100 lawmakers earn $30,000 each for their part-time work.
“It is not surprising that lobbyists make so much more than legislators, but I don’t think it’s the right thing,” said House Majority Leader KC Becker, a Boulder Democrat.
Many lobbyists represent big businesses – think oil and gas, health care, gaming and telecom companies. But they also represent a range of other interests, including nonprofits, local governments and even the state employee retirement plan.
And their full-time expertise can carry considerable influence on the legislative process.
“On the one hand, there are a lot of groups and interests who have a voice at the Capitol, which is good for public policy,” said Elena Nunez, executive director of Colorado Common Cause. “On the other hand, it makes it incredibly expensive and difficult to be represented.”
Nearly half of the $30 million in 2017 income is concentrated among the top 20 lobbying firms and individuals.
Julie McKenna, of top firm Brandeberry McKenna Public Affairs, said her five-woman business reports all income, even if it might be considered more consulting than lobbying. The firm’s 40 clients include the City and County of Denver and the Regional Transportation District, as well as online sports wagering firms, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, beer distributors and even several nonprofits.
McKenna cautions that lobbyists and their clients are just one factor in decisions made by Colorado lawmakers.
“They really pay attention to what their constituents think,” she said. “I think they view lobbyists as a source, but not the only source, of information. They certainly want to listen to lobbyists who will tell them both sides.”
House Majority Leader Becker said lobbyists are often highly involved in how laws are made.
“Lobbyists will help in all stages of a bill, from developing a bill idea, to researching it, to helping identify like-minded interested legislators or like-minded interested organizations, to drafting the bill, to lobbying the bill once it’s been introduced,” Becker said.
That’s in part because part-time lawmakers have only one part-time staff member. Eight-year term limits for legislators also mean consistent turnover.
“It’s really made not only lobbyists more powerful but the staff of the General Assembly more powerful, state employees more powerful,” said lobbyist Mike Beasley. “It has put us in the position of being the record keepers or historians on different issues.”
Beasley began lobbying in the 1990s and worked as former Gov. Bill Owens’ lobbyist. He’s the only lobbyist at his 5280 Strategies, but he often collaborates with other lobbyists as subcontractors, depending on the issue.
That collaboration extends to working with lawmakers and others.
“The best policy is achieved through compromise,” Beasley said. “People should scrutinize these policies and there should be a check and balance, and we definitely have that here.”
Lobbyists’ busiest time of the year are the four months of the legislative session. Income reported to the Secretary of State’s office bears that out.
McKenna said the hours are long during the legislative session. The four lobbyists in her firm reported tracking more than 300 bills earlier this year.
“We get up pretty early and get down to the Capitol early,” she said. “It really can be kind of early morning/late night depending on the floor schedule.”
Majority Leader Becker said she interacts with lobbyists frequently during the session.
“Sometimes the conversations can be 10 words: ‘Are you OK on House Bill 1234? Yes/no,’ “ Becker said. “Those kind of conversations happen multiple times a day, dozens of times a day.”
While lawmakers represent constituents who elected them, Beasley and McKenna said lobbyists also represent Coloradans who work for business interests, benefit from nonprofits and more.
“I think that being lucky enough to work on issues that face all of us is a privilege and it’s always a challenge, and I have the best job in the world,” Beasley said.
But Nunez, of Common Cause, worries that lobbyists may overshadow everyday Coloradans.
“At the end of the day, lobbying is a way for people to have their voices heard,” said Nunez of Common Cause. “We can’t just demonize, and say, ‘Oh, lobbyists.’ But is it in pursuit of helping Coloradans have their voices heard and is that where that money is going? Or is it the way for the most powerful interests in the state to dominate the policy making process?”