© 2024
NPR for Northern Colorado
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Colorado Governments And Agencies Spend Plenty On Lobbying The Legislature

Bill Badzo
Some of your tax dollars to local government and schools go to lobbying at the Colorado legislature.

Lobbying government is often considered the purview of big business.

But governments — cities, counties, school districts, even state entities — spent more than $4 million on lobbying in fiscal year 2017. Those governments — including the city of Denver and RTD — accounted for 13 percent of the $30 million spent on lobbying in Colorado last year.

And it doesn’t include money spent by associations representing various government interests, such as Colorado Counties or the Colorado Municipal League.

“Having an extra pair of eyes and an extra voice in this building that doesn’t always have a conga line behind local control and home rule is pretty important,” said Kevin Bommer, deputy director for the Colorado Municipal League.

Bommer and others say it’s essential that local governments have a voice at the legislature, whether it’s via the Municipal League or privately hired lobbyists.

“We have a state statute that says the state is not allowed to pass any unfunded mandates,” he said. “Every time I tell a legislator about that they’re shocked.”

But the top government-related lobbying spender is more concerned about protecting public employee retirement plans. The Public Employment Retirement Association spent nearly $180,000 in 2017 with four different lobbying firms working for them.

“We spend about less than 35 cents per member on lobbying costs,” said Tara May, chief communications officer for PERA who oversees the lobbyists. “We’ve got a critical legislative session ahead of us. We’ve got a lot of work that we need to accomplish this session”

The legislature will try to find a way to bring long-term solvency to the pension plan, aiming to fix a $32 billion shortfall over the next 30 years.

“The most important function our lobbyists perform is really related to education in being a resource to lawmakers,” May said. “It’s a $45 billion organization and it’s incredibly complex. We want to make sure there’s a balanced conversation, especially one that represents our membership.”

And there are groups advocating against changes sought by the PERA board. Americans for Prosperity, for instance, created a website and is collecting petition signatures to go to a “private-sector model” for government employees’ retirement.

House Majority Leader KC Becker said it’s important to get PERA’s viewpoint on legislation. PERA represents more than half a million state and local employees and retirees.

“If PERA doesn’t send someone to the capitol to say ‘here’s the impact it will have on people,’ then we’re not getting that analysis from anyone,” Becker said.

The same goes for local governments, according to Sen. Beth Martinez Humenik, a former Thornton city councilwoman who now chairs the Senate Local Government Committee.

“I think we’re seeing more local government lobbyists simply because they are seeing a return on their investment,” she said, “especially if there are laws being proposed that would be detrimental.”

With a lobbyist, she said, “Your voice is going to be heard where it might not have been heard or it might not have been heard as loudly if you just sent somebody from your staff to do it.”

Other government top-spenders on lobbying include state universities, community colleges, the city of Denver and RTD. Here’s a look at the top 10:More than 100 government entities employ private lobbyists outside associations. Chip Taylor, executive director of Colorado Counties, said that’s understandable.

“When Pueblo has a special message that they want or Weld has a special message ... then CCI doesn't necessarily carry that for them,” he said. “They want to make sure to help folks understand.”

Still, Becker, a former Boulder city councilwoman, said she doesn’t listen only to lobbyists for one side, even if they represent local or state government.

“I’m representing constituents,” she said. “I’m representing a lot of people who are giving me ideas, who have interacted with those agencies, who want me to be proposing changes.”

Correction: Lobbying payments for Colorado Community College System, Colorado Mesa University and Pueblo County were incorrect in the original version of this graphic because payments from one lobbyist to subcontractors were included. The graphic has been corrected.

Sandra Fish is a Colorado data journalist specializing in politics and government. She’s worked for newspapers in Iowa, Florida and Colorado. And she’s written about politics for Politics Daily, the Washington Post, Al Jazeera America and Roll Call.
Related Content