Last year, a bipartisan group of lawmakers pushed a bill through the Republican Senate and Democratic House requiring municipalities to obtain voter approval for red-light cameras.
The cameras are overwhelmingly hated by drivers and studies are mixed on whether they increase safety or make intersections more dangerous. But despite the public sentiment, government lobbyists paid with tax dollars helped kill the bill that Gov. John Hickenlooper vetoed after it landed on his desk.
“The governor’s lobbyist I know was trying to kill it,” said Rep. Kevin Van Winkle, a Douglas County Republican who co-sponsored House Bill 2015-1098 with Thornton Democrat Rep. Steve Lebsock. “He was talking to members, pulling them off the floor to persuade them to vote against it.”
Despite a state budget crunch that has some groups trying to change the Taxpayers Bill of Rights, state agencies and city governments are spending millions on in-house lobbyists, public relations staff and outside professional lobbyists, a Watchdog.org investigation found.
In fact, open records requests determined that state agencies alone will use nearly $11 million in tax dollars this year to pay the salaries of legislative liaisons and communications staff, including some paid as much as $140,000 a year. And those totals don’t include benefits.
Local governments, last year, paid as much as $1.67 million to outside lobbyists to support or oppose measures that may or may not have been in the public interest, an analysis of the state’s lobbying database shows. Lobbyists representing cites from Fort Collins to Denver to Aurora opposed Van Winkle’s red-light bill.
“I think the average voter would be angry if they knew that,” Van Winkle said after Watchdog.org showed him the database of state lobbying and PR salaries.
After joining the House, state Rep. Janak Joshi, R-Colorado Springs, noticed an article quoting the Colorado Department of Transportation lobbyist on an issue and wondered “why does the government need lobbyists?”
Joshi tried to pass a bill in 2013 to reduce the taxpayer money spent on state lobbying positions, saying executive directors and staff familiar with issues should be the ones to lobby and answer reporters’ questions.
“If someone from the executive branch wants something from us, they should just make the call themselves,” he told Watchdog.org. “We’re happy to meet with them.”
This year, Joshi resurrected the measure, House Bill 1221, which would cut 50 percent of state lobbying salaries and membership dues to increase Medicaid reimbursements — an issue close to the heart of the retired physician. The bill is unlikely to make it out of the kill committee where it has been assigned, but it raises a serious issue in a year when the state needs to cut spending.
While PR people aren’t addressed in HB-1221, Joshi said that is another expense that can easily be cut.
“There are a lot of ramifications of this type of money being spent,” said Joshi, who doesn’t consider his bill a partisan issue. “This is just the tip of the iceberg. What else are we spending money on?”
While public relations staff is often helpful in providing information for the public and reporters, they are just as likely to stand in the way of transparency, especially on controversial issues involving their agency.
Taxpayers pay Hickenlooper spokeswoman Kathy Green more than $134,000 a year, but she refused to provide an interview on state lobbying expenditures.
“(N)o one will be available to speak with you,” she wrote in an email to Watchdog.org after a request for comment. “Communication/public information positions and legislative liaisons are important roles in state agencies, sharing much needed and critical program information with Colorado’s residents, members of the legislature and media representatives.”
The Public Employee Retirement Association spent $98,000 last year to oppose bills that would allow public employees to move between the pension plan and a more 401k-like defined contribution plan, and to require state compensation studies to include the generous pension benefits available to state employees.
PERA spokeswoman Katie Kaufmanis initially refused an interview with Watchdog.org about the agency’s lobbying activities but agreed to a phone interview after Watchdog.org promised to bring up the topic with the executive director at the next PERA board meeting.
“We believe it is in the best interest of our members” to hire lobbyists, she said. “There were very complex bills last year.”
As to why Kaufmanis, who is paid more than $136,000 a year to answer reporters’ questions, initially wouldn’t do an interview: “It’s based on availability,” she said. “I’m not a road block. I’m facilitator. I will hook people up when I think it is worth our time to do an interview.”
Not all lawmakers think the spending on lobbyists is wasteful, and some privately say that state lobbyists help them obtain information they don’t have the staff to research. But it’s not clear if that information is slanted to help pass or kill a bill.
IN OTHER NEWS: Colorado lobbying hits all-time spending record
It’s difficult to determine the impact of taxpayer-funded lobbyists.
Legislative liaisons have to file lists of bill they are working on, but unlike their counterparts in the private sector they don’t have to reveal what stance they are taking on a bill. The Colorado Secretary of State’s office says that is because the law governing state lobbyists is nearly half a century old.
A database of state liaison lobbying shows only lobbyists from the Colorado Department of Public Safety and Colorado Department of Transportation listing the red-light bill as one of interest. In fact, the governor’s lobbyist did not register one bill last year. That is because the state’s primary lobbyist is apparently exempt from filing disclosures.
“Under Section 24-6-303.5, employees of both the General Assembly, Governor’s Office, and Lieutenant Governor’s Office are not subject to lobbying disclosure requirements,” Hickenlooper lobbyist Kurtis Morrison wrote Watchdog.org in an email exchange.
Analysis of the database shows that liaisons with the Department of Revenue lobbied for the most bills at 92 last year, and the bill with the most interest from state agencies was Senate Bill-2015 225, which changed the way historical society board members are chosen.
It took only about two weeks and a dozen open records requests to determine how much the state pays lobbyists and PR people, and a quick analysis of the state lobbying database showed how much local governments pay outside lobbyists. The lawmakers and other capitol insiders who Watchdog.org showed total spending on public relations and lobbying were surprised by the amount spent.
And the state is just one Colorado government spending tax money on staff to influence taxpayers and public policy. It would be a herculean task to figure out the cost of in-house lobbyists and PR people at all the various governments in Colorado, from counties to cities to school districts to water boards. Additionally, local governments often pay dues to associations, like the Colorado Municipal League and Colorado Counties, Inc., that lobby on behalf of the cities or district.
Federally, the nonpartisan government transparency organization, Openthebooks.com, found that federal government agencies spent $4.4 billion between 2007 and 2014 on outside public relations. When an Atlanta television reporter tried to ask the agencies about that spending, he found none of them wanted to go on camera to discuss the use of public dollars.
Van Winkle said now that he knows the extent of the costs of state lobbying and PR, it might be a good place for a budget cut.
“There are places we can cut and this might be a great one,” he said, adding he proposed a red-light camera ban this year that he hopes will pass early this session to see if the legislature will override a Hickenlooper veto. “How many lobbyists does each department need?”