COVER STORY INFLUENCERS colorado lobbyists

Lobbyists and other influencers wait for their chances to talk to state senators outside their Capitol chamber.

A bill to require lobbyists to disclose more information about their clients sooner prompted a debate about free speech on the Senate floor Friday.

Lobbyists currently self-report their information to the Secretary of State's Office, with little oversight on what's reported, which includes their clients' position on the bills the lobbyist is paid to follow and influence.

Lobbying firms sometimes hire contract lobbyists, who then list the original lobbying firm as their client, which the bill seeks to change so it's more transparent who's wielding influence on the legislation.

The legislation would require more frequent reports from professional lobbyists about who they’re representing.

"It's good information that's being [disclosed], but now there's too much of a lag during the session," said Sen. Mike Foote, D-Lafayette, one of the sponsors of House Bill 1248.

The measure also would keep lawyers from acting as lobbyists to invoke attorney-client confidentiality about shaping public policy.

The bill got preliminary approval in the Democratic-led chamber Friday, but not before Republicans questioned whether the bill aimed to stifle people's interest and ability to come to the Capitol to talk to their elected officials.

If they're being paid, no matter what their job is, they might be considered a lobbyist, especially by opponents to their cause, Republican senators argued.

Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, R-Parker, talked about when he was a trade association president and how confusing it was about whether he needed to register as a lobbyist simply to talk about legislation. Technically, he was paid to advocate a position, though he was never technically a  lobbyist.

Sen. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado  Springs, said it's really none of the government's business where a group or  individual stands on a bill, and sometimes positions can change based on negotiations or amendments during the legislative  process.

He said he would advise a lobbyist to tell the Secretary of State's Office he or she is following every bill introduced that session and the client is for, against and  monitoring each one.

"It's just insane," he said of the proposed reporting requirements.

He added, "Their clients might not want to say whether they have an interest in a  bill for a thousand reasons, all of them legitimate."

"This is not a straw-man argument," Holbert said. "There is a problem here in this bill, and it ought to be fixed."

Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, said lobbyists on both sides of almost any issue serve as valuable sources of information about their side for legislators who  have hundreds of bills to follow each session. It's up to legislators to take that information and use it judiciously. He said it's too easy for people to blame lobbyists for government decisions they don't agree with. 

"If there's a problem with the  lobby, then it's actually a problem with us," Hill said. "... This bill is an affront to the First Amendment."

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