Colorado lobbying reports show more than $20 million spent during 2023 session

At least $20 million was spent on lobbying during this past legislative session, not counting money spent in the lead-up to the General Assembly’s January start date or spending unreported in a state database.

It represents a snapshot of how industry and interest groups try to sway lawmakers into supporting, altering or killing some of the hundreds of measures considered by the legislature every year.

The Denver Post analyzed records posted on the Secretary of State’s website for January through May, though the report included some early filings for the first weeks of June. The legislative session began on Jan. 9 and ran through May 8.

It shows a continuous upward trend of in-session lobbyist spending in that time frame over the past five years, aside from a drop in 2021, and is the first time the figure has topped $20 million in that time period.

The data set included more than 15,000 entries drawn from lobbyist reports that include client and income. Of that, 9,500 entries included zero or empty data for income.

The Secretary of State’s office, which manages the record-keeping, said it found some reporting issues it’s seeking to correct. But by and large, differences could be attributed to lobbyists and clients having different arrangements that don’t always fit neatly in the reporting requirements. That includes lobbyists filing when they have no client or bill position listed and firms making disclosures in different ways, depending on contract structures.

“Firms and lobbyists are not required to structure their agreements or contracts to accommodate the governing documents, but they are required to disclose according to the governing documents,” spokesperson Annie Orloff said in a statement. “In lobbying, it is not uncommon to see a variety of reporting methods due to the circumstances unique to each firm, the lobbyists, and their clients.”

Among the biggest spenders: Massachusetts-based biopharmaceutical company Sage Therapeutics, at more than $250,000; Xcel Energy at more than $232,000; and the Colorado Municipal League at more than $167,000.

The spending doesn’t directly translate into legislative victories, Colorado Municipal League Executive Director Kevin Bommer said. Instead, the spending reflects the amount of time and effort sharing perspective on the issue. In all, the league registered positions on more than 100 bills this legislative session.

“I know a lot of folks look at the amount of money spent and think that tells the whole story,” Bommer said. “It’s not. For me, it’s an indicator of what had the most attention and who had the resources to dedicate to that attention. It doesn’t dictate outcomes.”

His group, for example, celebrated one of the splashiest victories of the past legislative session when the land use reform bill championed by Gov. Jared Polis stalled out in the closing hours.

Bommer was a vocal, and early, opponent of the measure. Polis hoped to increase density, particularly along the Front Range. Bommer worried it would erode local decision-making authority usually reserved for the cities he counts as association members.

Bommer’s argument won the day — on the last day of the session — as the House of Representatives and Senate couldn’t find common ground between competing measures.

Ultimately, two lawmakers who already shared the league’s local control concerns — Democrat Sen. Rachel Zenzinger and Republican Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer — proved pivotal in killing the bill.

While the league was at the forefront of one of the biggest fights under the Gold Dome this year, the biggest spending interest took a much narrower focus. Sage Therapeutics, a biopharmaceutical company based in Massachusetts, only registered positions on nine bills and mostly in monitor positions — an indication they’re watching a bill but not actively supporting, opposing or encouraging changes to it.

The bills included those aimed at increasing access to behavioral health care, coverage for prescription drugs and expanding treatment options.

In a statement, company spokesperson Francesca Dellelci noted that standards of care for brain health disorders haven’t progressed much in recent decades. The company advocated for “fresh review” of patient access to medicine.

“Public policy plays an integral role in shaping and protecting the health and well-being of people, and in fostering innovation,” Dellelci said in an email. “We work collaboratively with stakeholders and advocate for healthcare policies that responsibly reduce barriers to treatment, protect the patient-provider relationship, and create new paths for ensuring novel treatment options are accessible to patients who need them, when they need them.”

For Xcel Energy, the legislative session began as customers across the state reeled from spiking energy bills. Legislative leaders formed a special committee specifically to examine the issue. The resulting bill, SB23-291, led to “more significant” advocacy from the utility than in recent years, Hollie Velasquez Horvath, regional vice president for state affairs and community relations, said. But it wasn’t the only policy Xcel watched and lobbied.

At any given point of the legislative session, Xcel was monitoring at least 40 policies and proposals, Velasquez Horvath said. The interests of the state’s largest utility cut wide, she said, to include cybersecurity, workforce, consumer protections, tax credits and, of course, energy policy. Specific bills included those pertaining to natural gas pipeline safety, electronic sales and use tax and greenhouse gas reduction.

With the dust from the legislative session settled, she touted results that include rules allowing the utility to spread out spiking fuel costs over years — hopefully to blunt future spikes in energy bills — and bills that help Xcel pursue hydrogen power and statewide grid resilience for all energy providers.

The amount it spent on lobbying so far this year, according to Secretary of State data, so far tallied less than half of the $485,000 it spent in all of 2022, according to Xcel’s own lobbying report. Xcel reported spending more on lobbying in Colorado than all six other states in its service area in both 2022 and 2021, though a fraction of the nearly $4 million it spent on lobbying the federal government across those years.

While a new law explicitly bars utilities from spending customer money on lobbying, Xcel’s internal rules have required shareholders — not customers — to foot those bills, a spokesperson said.

Lobbying work also doesn’t end when the session is over. Velasquez Horvath said work is ongoing for likely future legislation aimed at strengthening the energy distribution system as part of the state’s ongoing electrification efforts.

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