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Politics

Big Lobbying, Big Bill And A Big Mistake: The Powers Behind Colorado's Upcoming Special Session

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Ken Lund
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CC BY-SA 2.0
Lawmakers are set to gather at the Capitol on Oct. 2 for a special session regarding an error in one of the most lobbied bills of the last session.

Two Republican and two Democratic lawmakers.

Another 96 legislators.

Nearly 175 lobbyists and lobbying firms.

More than 150 lobbying clients, including hospitals, local governments, school districts, unions, contractors and more.

That’s the intense involvement that went into last spring’s legislative grand bargain called “Sustainability of Rural Colorado.”

But one of the most heavily lobbied bills of the session ended up with a significant error that is costing Colorado entities hundreds of thousands of dollars a month.

Voters in special districts approved levying varying sales taxes to pay for transit, arts, health services, housing and more. But Senate Bill 267’s changes to marijuana taxes eliminated the sales taxes on pot for those special districts.

Those districts include the Regional Transportation District, which provides buses and light rail in the Denver area, and the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District, which helps fund places like the Denver Zoo.

Gov. John Hickenlooper has called a special session for Oct. 2 to attempt to restore those special district taxes on marijuana.

Complete Colorado first reported what lawmakers and others agree was an unintended drafting error.

Although the bill was introduced in late March, it didn’t pass until the final days of the General Assembly in May. The rush to pass the measure may have led to the error, said Elena Nunez, executive director of Colorado Common Cause. Her organization wasn’t involved in the bill.

“I think it’s hard,” Nunez said. “The process is complicated, and with all the stakeholders involved, that makes it easier for mistakes, because there are so many moving pieces and so many moving parts.”

A significant component of SB 267 allowed the state to remove a fee on hospital stays from the revenue limits imposed by the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR. Those fees pay, in part, for indigent care at hospitals around the state and are especially critical for rural hospitals.

Without such legislation, those payments to rural hospitals were slated to decline significantly.

The Colorado Hospital Association had been pushing for the fee change for several years, and had 10 lobbyists who reported working on SB 267. CHA paid $180,000 for lobbying in fiscal year 2017 on more than 90 measures before the legislature.

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Sandra Fish
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KUNC

“We certainly had a strong lobbying presence at the Capitol this year,” said Katherine Mulready, vice president of legislative policy for the association.

But SB 267 went beyond just the hospital provider fee. It raised taxes on recreational marijuana and allocated money for schools and transportation. It allowed the state to lease and buy back buildings and increased copays for Medicaid.

That’s what drew so many lobbyists and their clients to keep an eye on the measure. Most lobbyists reported that their clients either supported or monitored the bill.

Only one group – AARP – reported opposing it.

“It was beyond the scope of Colorado’s single-subject rule, at least that’s the way we interpreted that bill,” said AARP lobbyist Kelli Fritts. “We wanted a clean bill that would address the hospital provider fee. (Senate Bill) 267 had all kinds of stuff in it. Marijuana taxes, leasing and buying back public buildings, all kinds of stuff that did not really go along with the hospital provider fee.”

The organization also objected to higher Medicaid copays.

"The process is complicated, and with all the stakeholders involved, that makes it easier for mistakes, because there are so many moving pieces and so many moving parts."

“Medicaid is the biggest provider of long-term care services for older adults,” Fritts said. “These folks already can’t afford these higher co-pays and it could mean life or death whether or not they’re choosing to get their prescriptions for a higher co-pay.”

Lobbyists for a couple of known opponents of the bill, Americans For Prosperity and the Independence Institute, listed their position as monitoring the legislation. Independence Institute President Jon Caldara wrote two Denver Post columns opposing moving the provider fee out from under TABOR. And Americans For Prosperity gave lawmakers points for opposing Senate Bill 267 in the group’s legislative scorecard (pdf).

Other heavily lobbied bills during the 2017 legislative session included the state budget and Senate Bill 40, which gives the public better access to digital records. More than 100 lobbyists reported representing more than 100 clients on SB 40, for instance.

After a rocky road, with lobbying from many local governments, SB 40 bill finally passed at the end of the session, much like the hospital fee bill.

While the hospital association will be monitoring the upcoming special session, it’s likely local government lobbyists will be teaming up with special districts to get their funding restored.

But who is lobbying for whom likely won’t be known until mid-October and mid-November lobbying reports are filed with the Secretary of State.

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