Last Tuesday, a smattering of Colorado state lawmakers were at the University Club a few blocks from the Capitol waiting to see what grade they earned on a scorecard published by Americans for Prosperity.
The event was a first in Colorado for the state chapter of AFP, a national group that acts as the political arm of the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers and other conservative donors. During the last legislative session, AFP became more involved in Colorado— and at the state Capitol.
The group has emerged as a political powerhouse nationally, with a budget and technological infrastructure that rivals the Republican Party.
Early in the 2016 legislative session, AFP rolled out a six-point plan on a slick brochure that was placed on the desks of all 100 lawmakers outlining its conservative, free-market, low-tax agenda. The group also asked each lawmaker to sign a pledge to protect the state’s budget-limiting Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR) amendment by not voting to reclassify a nearly billion-dollar program called the hospital provider fee.
A measure to re-classify the revenue stream into a stand-alone TABOR-exempt enterprise – which was backed by legislative Democrats, some Republicans, and Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper – passed the Democratically controlled House. But a bill failed to make it to a floor vote in the Republican-controlled Senate, where one GOP senator, Larry Crowder of Alamosa, indicated he would have joined Democrats in voting for it, giving the plan enough votes to pass.
Derailing the hospital provider fee classification was perhaps the central legislative effort that AFP pushed during the session.
In February, AFP activists swarmed the Statehouse to hold a news conference with lawmakers, including Senate President Bill Cadman, a Republican.
“I can tell you this,” Cadman said at the AFP rally. “I don’t think I would be the president of the Senate if it wasn’t for the efforts you and yours did over the previous elections. And we look forward to continuing our partnership with you.”
At the time, progressive activists used Cadman’s words to suggest he was in the pocket of the Koch-backed group and would do its bidding under the gold dome.
Nearly six months later, on an off-session afternoon, Cadman would find out just how legislatively simpatico he was with the group as a voting member of the legislature. When AFP rolled out its first legislative scorecard during a luncheon at the University Club in Denver, Cadman and other GOP members of the House and Senate watched on.
Cadman earned a C.
The Senate president didn’t return messages to talk for this story, but Michael Fields, AFP’s state director, explained why the Republican from Colorado Springs earned a numeric score of 73 percent from the conservative group.
One of the reasons Cadman scored relatively poorly was because he doesn’t sit on any committees. That means he cast fewer scorable votes throughout the session than other lawmakers, Fields says. According to AFPs tally, the Senate president voted on 15 bills for which the group scored lawmakers. Of those, he scored a 0 on four.
“A lot of what people in the Senate got knocked on was economic development bills,” Fields told The Colorado Independent. “There were a couple of these we scored against.”
One of them was Senate Bill 194, a tax increment financing, or TIF, proposal related to regional development projects that would have created something called the Regional Transportation Development Act. The aim of the bill was to improve commercial development in areas where highway transportation is lacking.
AFP’s Fields points to that specific bill as an example where his group and typically Republican-friendly organizations like the Chamber of Commerce might differ.
“AFP wants to use government to get out of the way, while the Chamber wants to use government to help business with a TIF or something,” he said. “That’s the kind of thing that Republicans will vote for sometimes.”
Cadman also got a zero score for his vote on a bill – one that later became law – creating an industry grant program within Colorado’s workforce development council that awards money to businesses that do certain things like implement worksite training programs. AFP opposed it because the group doesn’t believe such legislation is a core function of government, and because the program uses public funds.
Because of Cadman’s role as president of the Senate, Fields says, he sometimes didn’t get scorable credit even when he aligned with AFP on an issue.
For instance, Cadman’s leadership role allowed him to assign the hospital provider fee bill to a committee stacked with Republicans likely to kill it. Good on him from AFP’s standpoint, but because Cadman never got to vote on the bill, he didn’t score a point with the group like those who killed the bill in the committee. Throughout the session, Cadman held a hard line against classifying the fee, at one point holding a news conference in which he touted a nonbinding legal memo saying doing so would be illegal. (Republican Attorney General Cynthia Coffman later opined that reclassifying the fee would be legal.)
Despite Cadman’s C grade from AFP the group recently awarded him its “Courage Under Fire” award. Fields said in his remarks he talked about Cadman and fellow GOP Sen. Mark Scheffel “standing up for TABOR throughout their careers— especially the last two years in senate leadership.” (Scheffel earned a grade of D, with 67 percent from the group in its scorecard.)
Fields, of AFP, says his group doesn’t mind knocking a member of either party with a bad grade since it cares more about holding elected officials accountable for votes than what party they represent.
Democrats, unsurprisingly, scored much lower generally than Republicans. The worst-scoring senator in AFP’s book was outgoing Denver-area Democratic Sen. Jesse Ulibarri, who earned an F with a numerical score of 23 percent.
The highest scoring member of the Senate was Tim Neville, a Littleton Republican, who earned an A+ grade with a score of 103 percent. He ranked higher than 100 by sponsoring AFP-friendly legislation, which earned him a bonus.
“I think they’ve taken more of an interest in Colorado,” Neville said of the group. “Which is a good thing. Colorado is a state where basically we have a lot of things in play. There are a lot of battles. I would think that any organization that is interested in where we’re going as a country would probably be more involved in Colorado, whichever side of the debate they may be on.”
See the rest of AFP’s scores below:
Here's AFP's scorecard for the Colorado Senate on votes last session pic.twitter.com/MTDcE4Ixi1
— Corey Hutchins (@CoreyHutchins) August 31, 2016
Here's AFP's scorecard for votes in the Colorado House last session: pic.twitter.com/Un09eGpfQ5
— Corey Hutchins (@CoreyHutchins) August 31, 2016
Photo by Colorado Senate GOP for Creative Commons on Flickr.