What's a Lobbyist?
Colorado's new "cooling-off" law is making legislators nervous.
If there was one clear message the electorate sent in November--other than its distaste for the Iraq war--it was a weariness with political corruption. Aside from being angry about scandals in Washington, voters in individual states punished legislators who had helped themselves to pay raises or pension plans that were perceived as overly generous. In two Western states, Colorado and Montana, they decided to block legislators from cashing in quickly on their jobs when they leave office. Both states approved two-year "cooling off" periods before retired officeholders could work as lobbyists.
Such closures of the revolving door have become common. Just over half the states now impose a waiting period of some length before legislators can enter the lobbying corps. The 2006 Montana initiative, sponsored by Governor Brian Schweitzer, passed without much controversy. But the Colorado measure, known as Amendment 41, has generated a good deal of heat since its passage.
Many legislators feel that it was poorly drafted and that it creates confusion about the sorts of jobs that will be open to them after their service. Eight legislators who were leaving office anyway talked publicly about stepping down early, before the law's strictures could take effect in the new year. At least three actually did so.
The confusion stems from the measure's definition of lobbying. Some in Colorado believe the language is so broad that legislators will be barred from working for any entity that interacts with the legislature--including the state government's own executive branch. "It is going to be a challenge to implement in a way that will make it clear who is impacted by this constitutional amendment," says state Representative Rosemary Marshall, who plans to introduce implementing legislation to clarify matters.
Supporters of Amendment 41 say they will accept legislation that simply clears up confusion over its provisions, but they contend the concerns are overblown. In their view, no reasonable interpretation of the measure would impose an undue burden on departing legislators. Working for an agency or a company that lobbies the legislature, they insist, is not the same thing as lobbying. "If you're managing a department, you're not being hired to lobby," says Denver attorney Mark Grueskin.
One thing is clear, however. Reformers in Colorado, as has been the case so often elsewhere, will find that their success in changing the rules only encourages new ways to get around the rules. In addition to the cooling-off period, Amendment 41 imposed a ban on meals and gifts worth more than $50 to legislators. Some Denver lobbying firms are looking into the idea of setting up nonprofits that would be free to pay the check or buy the ticket.
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