A year ago, then-state Senate President Bill Cadman, a Colorado Springs Republican, told a gathering of the conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity that if it were not for its work, Republicans would not have control of the state Senate.
He said he looked forward to continuing a partnership with the group, which is backed by billionaire brothers, David and Charles Koch.
The sentiment raised a few hackles among Democratic lawmakers who are wary of the influence on the statehouse of a group they say has an extreme agenda. But there is little denying AFP’s influence in — and outside of — the state Capitol in 2016.
AFP marshaled untold amounts of money and hundreds of volunteers to ensure the state Senate stayed in Republican hands and that Republican Congressman Mike Coffman kept his seat. It also worked to defeat ColoradoCare, the ballot measure that would have set up a single payer healthcare system for the state. (How much the group spent on these efforts, or where it got its money, is shielded by its 501(c)4 status, an IRS designation that allows an organization to avoid disclosing its donors.) And AFP took on not only Democrats, but virtually every major business group in the state in its fight against reclassifying a fee hospitals pay the state. Reclassification, still an issue this year, would free up million for roads, health care and education.
All in all, says AFP’s Colorado director Michael Fields, 2016 was a successful year for the group in blue Colorado.
Now, as the 2017 legislative session moves into its second month, you need no better indication of where AFP stands at the Capitol than the group’s appearance at the statehouse last week, when three potential gubernatorial candidates for the Republican nomination in 2018 lined up to make their opening pitches to AFP members.
George Braucher, district attorney for the 18th Judicial District; Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, and Treasurer Walker Stapleton, who wore an AFP T-shirt to the event, all spoke to the group of about 100 last Thursday.
That did not go unnoticed
“Witness every likely [Republican] gubernatorial here last week to speak,” Democratic Sen. Matt Jones of Louisville said. “Their influence is to make the place more extreme, and to benefit wealthy and well-connected people at the expense of the middle class.”
Both the state House and Senate have new Republican leadership, and while the faces may be different, the allegiance to AFP doesn’t seem to have changed much. Both the Senate President, Kevin Grantham of Cañon City; and House Minority Leader Patrick Neville of Castle Rock gave an enthusiastic greeting to the gathered AFPers last week.
Grantham said he “appreciated Americans for Prosperity for giving a voice to all Coloradans who seek fiscal restraint and are supportive of free markets…. You folks keep us honest.”
“He’s voted pretty well with our issues for years,” Fields said of Grantham, noting that the lawmaker is known to be collaborative and good at working with Democrats. Grantham also came out early against reclassifying the hospital provider fee. The state collects the fee from hospitals — about $750 million — and uses matching dollars to help cover Medicaid and costs for uncompensated care. Reclassifying it as its own enterprise fund would mean all those millions couldn’t be counted against the state limits set by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. Republicans consider reclassification a move to circumvent TABOR. Fields called Grantham’s remarks a “smart move that ended negotiations early.”
Former AFP staffers and volunteers have taken positions in the statehouse as well. Former AFP Colorado Deputy State Director Sean Paige is now headed into his third year as spokesman for Senate Republicans. A former AFP Colorado standout volunteer, Emily Cordes, is now Grantham’s executive assistant.
As for its agenda, AFP Colorado continues to stand against the hospital provider fee issue. But this year, it’s also taking aim at the state budget.
In a pamphlet outlining its 2017 legislative agenda distributed last week, the group calls on the General Assembly to “re-prioritize” the budget and avoid raising taxes, something Democrats would like to do as a way to pay for a $9 billion backlog of transportation projects.
AFP’s proposal for funding transportation is more or less identical to that of Senate Republicans: Find places to cut in the budget or issue bonds. AFP points out that transportation funding is 5 percent of the state budget while Medicaid is 34 percent, and includes a “massive expansion for able-bodied childless adults.” That right there, AFP suggests, is a place to cut.
In 2009, the Affordable Care Act allowed states to enroll uninsured low-income adults without children in Medicaid. Colorado was one of just five states that decided to go with that expansion. By 2015-16, according to the Joint Budget Committee budget report, expansion had boosted Medicaid rolls by nearly 300,000, adding roughly $1.3 billion to the state Medicaid budget.
It’s no surprise that AFP is looking at Medicaid dollars as a way to cut the budget and fund transportation. President Donald Trump’s election has made Congressional Republicans bold in their plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act, including that Medicaid expansion. Their idea is to put Medicaid dollars into direct-to-states block grants, and, according to The Washington Post, that would likely result in fewer dollars being spent on Medicaid.
House Majority Leader KC Becker, a Democrat, scoffs at the idea of cutting Medicaid to fund transportation.
“AFP doesn’t make the hard decisions about who to cut in Medicaid,” Becker said. “If you make that cut you’re denying someone access to healthcare, and that’s not a benefit to the state…Denying someone healthcare makes them sick, and they make other people sick and miss work. Is that what they achieve to aim with this?”
Cutting Medicaid funding in the state budget is going to be a tough sell even in the Republican-majority Senate.
Republican Sen. Larry Crowder of Alamosa voted for Colorado’s Medicaid expansion and said he would do it again.
“You have to realize I represent 16 counties and 15 of them are below the federal poverty level,” Crowder said.
He said he’s pleased with the number of uninsured people in his district who were able to get health care under the Medicaid expansion. Crowder acknowledged that there is always room for improvement under any program, and he would support improvements. But as to the concept of Medicaid expansion itself, he still supports it today. “I will never turn my back” on rural hospitals, he said.
Crowder also went against the party and AFP in his support for reclassifying the hospital provider fee. That earned Crowder negative publicity from AFP, which later resulted in a minor Twitter war between the group and Crowder.
“I’m here to represent my district,” Crowder said, when asked if he was ready to make peace with AFP in this session.
He said that while he holds no ill will toward the group, “we in politics cannot be influenced by an organization when we have to determine what our district and state need. Make no mistake about it, I’m a Republican, but I don’t follow the guises of these entities.”
Republicans may perceive AFP as having influence at the state Capitol, Becker said, but it doesn’t hold any sway in her district, which includes parts of Boulder and Clear Creek counties on the Front Range and Grand and Jackson counties on the continental divide.
“I think what will influence voters is that they’re seeing investments are not being made in their communities because there’s an ideological opposition to spending money,” she said.”I think those are worthwhile investments: schools, higher ed, broadband. You can’t cut the budget and invest in those things.”
Also, on the AFP agenda this year: Equal funding for charter schools. This is a popular issue among Republicans and some Democrats at the Capitol this year. Charter schools receive the same per-pupil funding as regular public schools, but charter schools do not get property taxes to pay for facilities, which causes them to use their per-pupil funding for those purposes. It also results in lower pay for charter school teachers. A bill to equalize charter school funding is pending in the state Senate, and is backed by Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican, and Sen. Angela Williams, a Denver Democrat.
Finally, AFP also wants the legislature to cut workforce and economic development programs, which it calls “favors” to special interests.
“It’s one of the ways that we’re different from business organizations that favor these incentives,” Fields said. “Anything that picks winners and losers, or picks one sector or company over another, we’re going to have a problem with.”
But AFP has a tough battle here. Such programs have been among the most popular and most bipartisan issues in the General Assembly.
“It’s a big issue for us and we’re willing to work on this for years to come until we get rid of these programs,” Fields said.
Photos by Marianne Goodland for The Independent