Bill to smooth lobbyist access in Denver founders on populist backlash

DENVER– Lawmakers killed a bill in committee Tuesday that would have allowed lobbyists to bypass security lines at the capitol. The bill drew attention from the media for appearing to integrate lobbyists into the capitol culture in a way that citizens are not. The bill failed four votes to seven.  

lobbyists

Sponsored by Rep. Larry Liston, R-Colorado Springs,  and Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Westminster,  HB 10-1092 would have provided for a lobbyist identification card that would allow lobbyists who paid fees associated with the cards to avoid passing through the fairly low-hassle airport-style capitol entrance security, which includes placing bags through scanning machines and emptying pockets before walking through a metal detector. The fee would have covered the cost of the card, a criminal background check and surcharges up to $300.  The cards would have had to be renewed annually for at least $50 and background checks would have had to be updated every three years. The bill aimed to place money gathered thorough the program into a fund for legislative expenses.

Critics said the bill would give privileged fast-track access to lobbyists willing to spend the money. Lobbyists holding the cards could have come and gone at the capitol with the same easy no-stop access enjoyed by lawmakers, giving the lobbyists the freedom for example to stroll uninterrupted side by side with lawmakers while chatting them up.

Liston told the State, Veterans, & Military Affairs Committee attendees that the intent of his bill had been distorted.

“The lobby core is given nothing. They have to earn [the card],” he said. “House bill 1092 is a win, win situation. It is good for the state, it is good for the citizens, it is good for the operations around the capitol and it is fully paid for. It makes good common sense.”

The committee disagreed.

Rep. Joe Miklosi, D-Denver, said that his constituents were concerned that a special class would be created and it would be made up the state’s most highly paid lobbyists. “It just doesn’t compute in terms of passing the smell test.”

Liston pressed back, laying out a surprisingly frank assessment of capitol culture.

“These are men and women who work in the capitol every day… They have a code of ethics unlike the public, which I don’t have a problem with, either.

“As to your point that we are cutting out a special deal or exception, well that’s what we do here. We are cutting special deals for individuals or groups every day. This will not be the first group of people that we have made a cut out for.”  

He said the bill would help the state run more efficiently and that it would streamline the work of capitol State Patrol personnel.

Rep. B .J. Nikkel, R-Windsor, said she appreciated the effort to work toward greater efficiency but asked if Liston would be willing to allow more people who work in the capitol to undergo similar background checks to avoid the security lines.

Liston said that he would support expanding the legislation to encompass others.

Testifying at the hearing, Colorado Common Cause noted that the bill might create a hierarchy among those looking for access to legislators. Director Jenny Flanagan said that the cost of the cards imposed by the surcharge could exclude volunteer lobbyists from the program.

“If a legislator is talking to a lobbyist and they get to a [security] line, well the lobbyist who can afford the card will be able to continue talking with that legislator. But that citizen who wants to continue that conversation with that legislator has to get in that line. Same for the lobbyist who couldn’t afford it. So I think that there is a problem with creating special access.”

Liston said that he would be willing to provide a sliding scale for lobbyists.

Lobbyist Becky Brooks told the committee the bill was not without precedent. She said in past years, before the introduction of the screening machinery, lobbyists were provided badges that allowed them to enter without going through security. She said, in effect, that the bill was being distorted by the press, which was catering to anti-lobbyist populist sensibilities. She said members of the press were saying the bill aimed to create a “Lexus lane for the lobbyists.” 

“This is not about inequality. This is about security. And about giving time to the state patrol to give a more thorough search to those who do not come through time after time after time.”

Rep. Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, D-Boulder, said her constituents were having none of it.

“What I am hearing is that they really resent this. There is a feeling from the average citizen that we just listen to the special interests.” She said it was important that public perception not be tainted by further apparent catering to special interests.

Committee Chair Rep. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora, said that the bill would simply create a statute that would allow one group of people to have admittance that was not provided to other citizens. She said she was unwilling to support the law, as it would be the first law in Colorado history to do so.

“I had a town hall meeting yesterday and everyone of my constituents there felt it was unfair. ‘Why should a lobbyist go in the door before me? I am a citizen. It is a citizens house.'”

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