It might not be the smoke-filled rooms of old, where politicians hammered out deals in secret— but that’s only because smoking isn’t allowed in public buildings in Colorado.
Otherwise, those deals, in the form of legislation, are going down at the 44th annual meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council, taking place over the next three days at Denver’s Hyatt Regency hotel.
Hundreds of state lawmakers from across the country are meeting with lobbyists to hammer out model legislation in sessions that are closed to the public and the press. More than 1,500 attendees are at this year’s conference, a near-record, according to ALEC’s Colorado co-chair Rep. Lori Saine of Firestone.
The nonprofit, which calls itself a nonpartisan organization of state lawmakers “dedicated to the principles of limited government, free markets and federalism,” is supported by more than 300 corporations and foundations, including several tied to the Coors family and to Charles and David Koch, the Kansas billionaires who have funneled millions into conservative causes. The oil and gas industry, as well as tobacco companies, also support ALEC, which is not required by law to report its sources of income.
Republican lawmakers from Colorado (and one Democrat) are out in force at this year’s annual meeting; by noon Wednesday at least 14 current legislators were milling around, including GOP Senate President Kevin Grantham of Cañon City. Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert of Parker is attending his first ALEC meeting. Key state budget writer Kevin Lundberg, a senator from of Berthoud, opened the first keynote address by singing the Star Spangled Banner.
One Democrat at the gathering is Colorado Springs Rep. Pete Lee, who is not an ALEC member, he says, but came to meet up with friends attending the conference. Being from Colorado Springs makes him very comfortable around Republicans, he quipped. Republicans make up all of ALEC’s known membership from Colorado.
Some of the state Capitol’s most prominent lobbyists are also schmoozing, including Axion Strategies’ Micki Hackenberger, Sandra Hagen Solin, and Jim Cole of Colorado Legislative Services.
Wednesday morning saw both sides of the political spectrum at work: at the Hyatt, lawmakers and lobbyists huddled in closed sessions on issues such as broadband, K-12 and higher education, not to mention federalism and international relations, which featured a report from Lundberg on amending the U.S. Constitution.
Less than a mile away, more than 300 protesters gathered at the state Capitol, primarily targeting Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who is slated to speak at noon Thursday at the ALEC conference.
— Ryan Case (@RyanCase84) July 19, 2017
The protesters gave out “awards” to Colorado lawmakers who sponsored ALEC-backed legislation, complete with stand-ins who held large photos of the awardees.
One lawmaker they blasted for supporting a repeal of the state’s health exchange wasn’t actually a sponsor. Event organizers later told The Colorado Independent that the lawmaker, Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling, did vote for the bill (in an appropriations hearing) and they blistered him for the vote because of his membership in ALEC.
Cary Kennedy, a Democrat who is running for governor, mingled with the protest crowd; Democratic Sen. Andy Kerr of Lakewood, who is running for Congressional District 7, was among the featured speakers. Protest leaders blasted Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican running for Congress, because he sponsored a bill to provide equal funding to charter schools. But they omitted that the bill drew strong Democratic support in both the House and Senate, including its chief House sponsor, Democratic Rep. Brittany Pettersen of Lakewood, who is running against Kerr for the congressional seat.
When the protesters marched to the Hyatt, they were met by heavy Denver police presence. The hotel entrances were closed off except for the main doors.
The conference attendees largely missed the action. They were at their luncheon session, listening to Molson-Coors executive Pete Coors talk about free speech and the rights of corporations to fund political campaigns. Noble Energy’s U.S. Senior Vice President Chip Rimer talked about advancements in fracking, and former presidential candidate and millionaire publisher Steve Forbes spoke about healthcare and his signature issue, tax reform.
— Sandra Hagen Solin (@CapSolSolin) July 19, 2017
“ALEC doesn’t tell conservative legislators what to do, despite what you read in the media, and certainly not our Colorado delegation,” said GOP Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, who is considering a run for governor, during remarks ending the noon luncheon. “It’s just laughable to say an organization can tell independent-minded legislators how to govern. ALEC helps with research, experts, court-tested language and the development of ideas. We are grateful to you all for what you do for us.”
The conference runs through Friday.