Elections have consequences, and few Republican-linked groups at the state Capitol are likely to feel it more in the 2019 legislative session than Americans for Prosperity-Colorado.
On Friday, the political organization released its 2019 legislative agenda focused on:
- Reducing the number of occupations that require state licensing;
- Fighting any efforts to weaken the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights (TABOR);
- Supporting the oil and gas industry and rejecting renewable-energy mandates;
- Working against "government-funded health care" that "our state government can't handle, financially or administratively";
- And supporting "educational choice," which in the past has meant taxpayer-funded vouchers for private K-12 education and charter schools.
Americans for Prosperity is the political arm of the conservative donor network led by billionaire businessmen Charles and David Koch.
In a statement Friday, AFP-Colorado State Director Jesse Mallory said: “Colorado is at a crossroads after voters ushered in new leadership. Lawmakers should focus on enacting transformative, bipartisan solutions that break down barriers, so individuals are able to pursue their passions without government-imposed burdens. Unchecked tax hikes, excessive occupational licensing bureaucracies, and ineffective government-run health care prevent individuals from achieving their potential.
“We look forward to working with the new leadership in Denver to address, and if necessary stand ready to defend, policies that will yield real results for all Coloradans,” Mallory added.
In Colorado, the group has been tied at the hip to Republicans for the past four years, hosting events that tout Republican elected officials and candidates, and in return being thanked for being good friends with what until this years has been the Senate Republican leadership, such as former Senate President Bill Cadman, who thanked the group in 2016 for helping Republicans take the state Senate.
While AFP claims it's nonpartisan, few Democrats win praise from the group. A rare exception came in June 2017, when an AFP-sponsored ad campaign thanked then-state Rep. Brittany Pettersen of Lakewood and Sen. Angela Williams, along with a pair of Republicans, for sponsoring an AFP-supported measure providing for charter-school funding.
AFP-Colorado wasn't exactly successful on the campaign trail in the 2018 election season, spending more than $207,000 with a first-ever independent expenditure committee. Every candidate it backed lost -- from Republican gubernatorial candidate and former state treasurer Walker Stapleton, to Republican Senate candidates Tim Neville and Christine Jensen.
It was, however, part of the successful coalition that fought against Amendment 73, which would have raised billions for K-12 education through higher tax rates on well-paid Coloradans and businesses, as well as working against Proposition 112, which would have increased the distance between new oil and gas drilling and occupied structures. Both measures lost in November.
The 2019 agenda is part of a new approach, according to an AFP spokesman, who said: "It’s no secret we didn’t support the candidacy of now-Gov. Jared Polis, but he has floated some ideas we could possibly get behind, like expanding educational freedom or him stating Coloradans already pay too much in taxes."
"People have pigeon-held us into party affiliations, that’s not who we are, especially going forward," the spokesman added. "In fact, an op-ed by one of our network’s principals was published today that highlights our new approach. Our impetus for engagement has always been policy, but now more than ever, we’re doubling down on that as an organization. And while Gov. Polis will push his own agenda, we’ll do our best to insert ourselves in the conversation on behalf our activists and other invested Coloradans. Every politician wants bipartisanship. There are issues where we can help and there will be other issues we may not agree on, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try and respectfully insert ourselves into the discourse."
The group's “Reform the Rockies” agenda, which will be be rolled out in more detail later this legislative session, is an outline of policy areas that also include criminal justice reform.
While the group's agenda is in near-direct opposition to most of the agenda laid out Thursday by Polis in his first State of the State address, there are a few areas where Democrats, who control the House, Senate and governor's mansion, see a possibility for common ground.
Polis on Thursday called for some of the same criminal justice reform ideas that AFP-Colorado supports. The AFP-Colorado website mentions "rehabilitation instead of punishment" and providing tools for those released from prison to "successfully reenter society."
Polis said Thursday that the state must "make sure Coloradans who do serve prison or jail time are able to live a dignified and fulfilling life after they’ve paid their debt to society."
Democratic Rep. Leslie Herod of Denver told Colorado Politics Friday that AFP's criminal justice ideas "fits in well" with Democrats' legislative agenda.
"Criminal justice reform is not and should not be a partisan issue," Herod said. "Our society benefits not one bit if we focus only on incarceration. I welcome AFP to the table to find real solutions to this complex issue."
But at least one Democratic operative views the new approach with skepticism.
Ian Silverii of ProgressNow Colorado told Colorado Politics Friday that "Americans For Potholes, I mean 'Prosperity,' has done it again with a new 'agenda' that only demonstrates once again why Colorado conservatives were tossed out by voters at every level last November.
"The voters of Colorado could not have spoken more clearly when they voted for fiscal sanity, renewable energy, public education, and expansion of the health reforms that have made Colorado one of the great success stories of the Affordable Care Act," Silverii added. "In response, the Koch brothers propose that we roll back the expansion of Medicaid, shortchange our public schools, burn more dirty coal, oil and gas, and continue the 'starve the beast' attacks on public investment AFP is paid by out-of-state billionaires to foist on Colorado. To the very fine people at Americans for Potholes, Colorado says thanks but no thanks. You lost, and this backward agenda is why."
Silverii is the husband of now-Sen. Brittany Pettersen, one of those Democrats that AFP-Colorado praised in 2017.