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Lobbying spending at the Colorado Capitol set another record. Here’s how much was spent

Opposition to public option health care bill drove spending in fiscal year 2021
The gold-covered dome on the State Capitol in downtown Denver. (Associated Press file)

Fueled by opposition to a measure seeking to create a public health insurance option, lobbying spending at the Colorado Capitol again reached a record.

Nearly $44 million was spent during the 2020-21 fiscal year, which ended June 30, according to a Colorado Sun analysis of filings with the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office.

That’s up 8% from the previous year and up 32% over the 2018 fiscal year, the year before Democrats took control of the state Legislature and Democratic Gov. Jared Polis took office.

In the three years since Democrats took control at the Capitol, lobbying spending grew steadily as the party pursued an agenda often at odds with business interests, including oil and gas regulations, health care reform and environmental policy. In the past two years, the Legislature’s coronavirus response also added to the lobbying activity.

Record spending by group opposing the public option

Nearly 1,200 businesses, associations, local governments and nonprofits reported paying lobbyists during the 2021 fiscal year.

But only about 300 reported spending $50,000 or more during that period, and only one-third of those clients spent $100,000 or more.

Partnership for America’s Health Care Future spent a record $790,000 on lobbying last fiscal year, while also spending another $1.4 million on advertising and consulting to try to influence lawmakers to vote against House Bill 1232, which originally sought to create a public health insurance option.

Legislators ultimately watered down the bill, instead pursuing a policy forcing private insurers to offer a state-mandated health insurance plan in a move that prompted the national nonprofit to declare victory.

The partnership doesn’t disclose where its money comes from. But its members include the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, Colorado Farm Bureau and Colorado Business Roundtable. CVS, the pharmacy chain that also owns health insurer Aetna, gave $5 million to the partnership in 2020.

In 2020, Partnership for America’s Health Care Future spent $236,000 directly on lobbying in Colorado and another $4.8 million on related expenses, mostly advertising.

Ironically, the partnership’s lobbying firm, Forbes Tate Partners of Washington, D.C., didn’t report paying any individual lobbyists to work against the bill.

“Their efforts were certainly historic,” said Rep. Dylan Roberts, an Avon Democrat who was a prime sponsor of House Bill 1232.

But, he added, “their influence from my perspective was minimal to none.”

“It appears their efforts were solely to run an outside game. They were never in the rooms when we were negotiating changes to the bill,” he said.

The partnership lobbied against similar measures to create state run health plans in other states.

The group spent nearly twice as much on lobbying last fiscal year as the previous perennial top spending lobbying client, Xcel Energy. The utility spent more than $413,000 last fiscal year, down 9% from 2020.

Another utility, Black Hills Corp., was the third biggest spender in the 2021 fiscal year at about $234,000, followed by AARP at $225,000. The American Property Casualty Insurance Association rounded out the top five, spending $218,000.

Other lobbying clients with health care interests that were among the top 10 spenders last year include COPIC Insurance Co., the state’s medical malpractice insurance provider, at No. 6. Biopharmaceutical company Emergent Biosolutions was at No. 7, and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America came in at No. 10.

PhRMA, as the association is known, also reported spending nearly $611,000 on digital and radio ads opposing increased regulations on prescription drugs in an effort to lower prices.

Health care and pharmaceutical interests accounted for nearly 22% of overall lobbying spending in 2021.

K-12 and higher education accounted for nearly 10% of the spending last year, followed by government groups, such as those representing cities and counties, at 5%.

Other bills draw plenty of attention

The measure to create a public option health care plan ended up with about 175 lobbyists and lobbying firms registered to represent 128 clients.

Meanwhile, 148 clients hired 167 individual lobbyists and firms to influence a measure to make it easier for workers to file harassment and discrimination claims, with many of those clients opposing the bill and few supporting it. That measure, Senate Bill 176, failed in the final days of the legislative session.

And 123 clients deployed 150 lobbyists to defeat a measure, Senate Bill 200, aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions that Polis also opposed and was eventually spiked. A compromise measure, House Bill 1266, that included many parts of Senate Bill 200 drew about 101 lobbyists representing 79 clients.

While opposition is often a motivation for business interests to hire lobbyists, that isn’t always the case.

A measure aimed at providing billions of dollars in funding for transportation (and increasing fees to pay for it) received mostly support from lobbying clients. While conservative interest groups including Americans for Prosperity and Colorado Rising Action fiercely opposed Senate Bill 260, there was plenty more support.

Cities and counties, contractors and construction businesses, unions and business associations, including the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, all weighed in to support the transportation bill.

Top lobbying firms

The lobbying firms with the biggest income also employ multiple individual lobbyists and represent a variety of clients.

Colorado Legislative Strategies, for instance, employs four lobbyists and reported representing 37 clients in fiscal year 2021. It raked in $1.8 million. Their clients included the Colorado Bankers Association, the Colorado School of Mines and the Colorado Oil and Gas Association.

Brandeberry McKenna Public Affairs also has four lobbyists and represented 35 clients, including the city of Denver and Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. (PhRMA also employed four other individual lobbyists.)

Sewald Hanfling Public Affairs represented 39 clients, while The Capstone Group represented 38.

Forbes Tate, the Washington, D.C.-based firm representing the Partnership for America’s Health Care Future, represented only seven other clients in Colorado. Most of those clients employed the firm to work on health care issues.

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.