The ugly back and forth on the power of special interests that has shaped the U.S. Senate primary contest pitting Andrew Romanoff against Michael Bennet has so far turned mostly on abstractions and circumstantial speculations. Former state House Speaker Romanoff has railed against big money donors and highlighted Bennet votes he thought raised questions about influence. Senator Bennet has fired back that although candidate Romanoff takes no special interest money, lawmaker Romanoff was deep into the trough. Romanoff has rejected political action committee money. Bennet has said PAC spending is a matter of public record and so is not the problem Romanoff is making it out to be.
But, in attempting to shape or pass legislation, special interests do more than give cash. Special interest lobbyists and attorneys often write the legislation itself. And on that matter Bennet and Romanoff hold different positions.
“I think the [congressional] staff should be [drafting legislation], that the people in the [lawmaker’s] offices should be doing that,” Bennet told the Colorado Independent. “Even if people are all doing great work, and even if everybody is well intentioned and everybody’s intentions are honorable, it’s still important that we have a public perception– that there is confidence in the work.”
In his freshman year in the Senate, Bennet has worked to erect new boundaries in the relationship between lobbyists and lawmakers. He proposed legislation to extend the period of time congressional staffers must take off before taking lobbyist jobs and returning to the Hill to pitch their former colleagues. As it is, he says, there’s too much room to peddle influence and erode public trust.
Romanof, however, told the Independent that lobbyists know their topic well and can be a tremendous resource to lawmakers. He said the onus is on lawmakers to act as gatekeepers and make their own decisions on any draft legislation presented to them. He said that’s why the money that one way or another accompanies a draft bill, for example, is the problem. The fact that lobbyists write legislation was not a top concern.
The two views may largely stem from the way legislative resources differ in Denver and Washington.
In Washington, Hill staffers are generally long-time professionals knowledgeable on a wide range of topics. In Denver, where cash to pay staff is minimal, lawmakers lean on outside experts– often lobbyists– to develop legislation. State lawmaker pass outside legislation for review to the Office of Legislative Legal Services or OLLS, which is staffed with attorneys who provide law-writing services and advice.
OLLS staffers mainly make sure the bills do not conflict with Colorado statute. Indeed, OLLS tells drafters to avoid altering legislation coming from outside groups because the devil is in the details and inexperienced lawmakers could make a mess of the proposed laws.
The upshot is that in writing legislation, Sen. Bennet relies on his staff and Former Speaker Romanoff relied on lobbyists and the nonpartisan OLLS.
Colorado Senate Majority Leader John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, told the Independent that lobbyists in Colorado can have considerable influence on legislation but that any legislation they submit will definitely pass through OLLS. In Washington, on the other hand, the draft might go through merely one staffer, who also may have been pressed by the lobbyist who wrote it, for example, or may be pals or former colleagues with that lobbyist and for that reason less likely to whatever degree to take a straight look at the legislation.
“The reality of the process is that somebody wants something done, whether it is Excel Energy or the Colorado Children’s Fund or the Chiefs of Police or the Sheriffs. Somebody wants something done. Somebody can see something in statute that is not working,” said Morse.
He added that committees evaluate all legislation and that different kinds of outside people have different levels of influence. “Bond attorneys for example would literally have 99 percent influence… what do I know about law and technical details?”
Morse said lobbyists search out legislators who are willing to work with them. He said this year the Fire Police Pension Association largely wrote SB 21 and 22, for example. Mainly he agreed with Romanoff that lawmakers have to act as gatekeepers. Morse said he puts OLLS in direct contact with some lobbyist groups to work on developing bills.
“It is always up to the individual legislator to say ‘Wait, I am not willing to do that’ or ‘What does this mean?’ or ‘Is that where I want to go?’ “
In Colorado it’s not uncommon to see a legislator in committee turn to ask a stakeholder or lobbyist how the bill work or asking for advice on whether they should support or object to amendments.
Still, Morse said that it’s unlikely a bill that could bring significant change would get far without OLLS fully informing a lawmaker about the ramifications. Given the resources here, he said, “I don’t think it is a bad thing that [special interests] have some influence in the process.”
Morse said he thought it must be more difficult for Washington lawmakers to catch problems.
“In Washington if a lobbyist gets a hold of a Bennet staffer and says ‘This is how we want a bill written’… they probably have a lot of influence in how that bill is presented, at least in the first draft.”