It took about 15 whole seconds for the board members to stand up. Now, that’s a bit of a cheap shot, but it illustrates a broader point about influence in the Colorado Legislature.
One group you’ve probably never heard of, the Colorado Union of Taxpayers, commonly referred to as CUT, holds significant sway in Denver, according to numerous legislators on both sides of the aisle. Specifically, their policies directly affect Republican action, even striking fear into Republicans who vote against CUT positions.
CUT’s annual rankings measure each member of the Colorado House of Representatives and Senate based on how they voted on bills throughout the session. Those rankings make the rounds at the statehouse, giving some legislators who followed CUT’s recommendations scores as high as 100 percent (Republican Sen. Randy Baumgarner of Hot Sulphur Springs and Republican Rep. Perry Buck of Windsor) and some legislators as low as 0 percent (Democratic representatives Jeanne Labuda of Denver and KC Becker of Boulder).
Though there are dozens, if not hundreds, of other lobbying and influential groups at the statehouse, CUT is the only organization that sends policy positions directly to legislators every week on almost every bill. Their influence on legislators ranges from acknowledgement to tacit obedience.
And so it’s important to note that at their annual “Taxpayer Champion” event on Oct. 16, it took the elderly board members some time to get out of their chairs in the basement of the Independence Institute in Denver and wave to the sparse crowd of perhaps 30, out of which six were legislators about to accept awards.
There was a long table with homemade pumpkin-shaped cookies, Ritz crackers still in the wrapper and a Safeway crudités platter. There were three coolers with water and Sprite, though one guy had a can of Corona. Shabby lighting and decorations, inoffensive snacks, cheerful fellowship lit by the fire of being a righteous voice in a daunting new age and empty brown folding chairs. It was all very Saturday night church youth group. Or maybe Elk’s Club.
In front of a 3-by-5-foot red, white and blue banner that read “Colorado Union of Taxpayers,” CUT President Gregory Golyanksky opened the evening talking on a big, corded microphone about lowering taxes and the tyranny of government. In the evening’s accompanying brochure, Golyansky wrote, “The whole political atmosphere is beginning to resemble Germany in the 1930s.”
“Our primary occupation is to keep the legislature accountable with respect to taxation, as well as other issues that are in our pledge: private property issues, free market issues, charter schools,” Golyanksky says.
The official credo for CUT includes commitment to fervently support the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR, which was a controversial 1992 bill that has since required all tax increases to be voted on by Colorado citizens. CUT actually was born out of the TABOR movement, Golyanksky says, and is a driving force for CUT policy decisions.
CUT also asks legislators to pledge to oppose any new tax increases, support a state spending limit, refund all tax surpluses to taxpayers, support school vouchers, support privatizing government agencies and defend private property rights. About 200 politicians, mostly state assembly members and candidates, have signed the official CUT pledge.
CUT operates efficiently. At the beginning of each legislative week, bills on the docket are divided among the 12 board members. Those board members review and synopsize the bills before the meeting as a group. The group will then make a decision on each bill and send out their position and reasoning to each member of the House, Senate and members of the media. CUT receives funding mostly through private donations.
Golyansky says CUT’s efficiency and prolificacy provides a valuable service to lawmakers who do not have time to read the more than 500 bills that are introduced every legislative session.
“Legislators see [that] if we support it, it’s a good bill,” Golyanksky says. “We provide important help for them when they know we have reviewed the bill thoroughly. We have people who are basically helping legislators decide.”
When CUT makes its annual ratings of legislators, it takes 30 or so of the 500 bills proposed in the legislature the previous session that most exemplify their mission and rate legislators on how they voted. Of the 30 bills CUT based their rankings on in 2014, they recommended a “no” vote on all but two: a bill that outlawed red light cameras and a water rights bill.
Bills CUT recommended a “no” vote on included those that proposed giving in-state tuition to American Indian students (HB-1124), expanding availability of affordable housing (HB- 1017), making children’s healthcare more affordable and available to more people (HB-1317) and giving more comprehensive insurance to firefighters (SB-172), among others.
Even though CUT will be the first to say their policy positions are narrow in scope, many lawmakers agree that CUT is a reliable source for all policy decisions.
“CUT ratings kind of give me a guide when I’m thinking about a bill,” says Rep. Lori Saine (R-Dacono). “Usually after I read a bill, I’ll find the CUT ratings — they’re a healthy marker.”
Saine (CUT score: 100) says though either side can form their own opinions, both Democrats and Republicans always have an eye on CUT scores.
“Both sides pay attention to it,” Saine says. “It gives them a marker as well to see how their bill is going to be voted on. What’s nice is that [CUT does] a really good job explaining why they think it violates principles of lower taxes.”
Sen. Kevin Lundberg (R-Berthoud) says that CUT positions on bills may not always dictate his vote, but are used as a factor in judging his performance.
“I have appreciated the CUT rating system,” Lundberg (CUT score: 92.59) says. “It helps legislators gauge their votes with respect to holding the line on spending and defending the interests of the taxpayer. CUT rarely influences my vote before I cast it, but it is a great tool in evaluating what I did with my votes.”
Even the most senior Democrat in the Senate, Majority Leader Rollie Health (D-Boulder) says CUT has significant influence.
“I think I have reasonable relationships with my colleagues on the other side [of the aisle],” Heath says. “And on way more than one occasion, I will go to them and say ‘Can you support the bill?’ and they will say to me ‘I need to check what CUT is saying about that’ and they are very open about that and that’s kind of the way it is.”
Heath (CUT score: zero) adds that their influence has a foothold in part because “CUT is the only group I know that takes a position on everything.”
Indeed, CUT’s mere presence is enough to influence lawmakers, and Golyanksky says Republicans will vote with CUT because a good CUT score is important in heavily conservative districts and in Republican primaries.
But have CUT’s policy statements ever affected individual pieces of legislation? Heath and other Democrats say it’s tough to pin the fate of one piece of legislation to a lobbying group, but CUT would be the group to do it.
“I have heard some legislators say they voted a certain way because of the CUT rankings and that’s too bad,” says Rep. Mike Foote (D-Lafayette; CUT score: 3.45). “We should exercise our independent judgment on issues and not vote a certain way just because CUT says so.”
The Speaker of the House, Rep. Mark Ferrandino (D-Denver), says he’s seen Republicans use CUT policies to determine their stance on several votes in the past.
“[CUT has] influence on the Republican side and I would argue view things in a partisan light and don’t support Democratic bills that should tie to their priorities,” says Ferrandino (CUT score: zero). “So while they are a simple way for Republicans to decide how to vote on bills, they do not provide valuable input to the complex dialogue needed during the legislative process.”
Ferrandino’s point echoed many Democratic legislators who say even though CUT says it is non-partisan, the group really is not and their divisiveness prohibits compromise.
“I look at my score, I was kind of surprised to get a zero this year,” says Sen. Pat Steadman (D-Denver). “In the past couple of years, they’ve liked some of the bills I’ve sponsored and some of the things I’ve done. I’m puzzled by some of the things that get their attention.”
“With Republicans having been in the minority, I don’t think [CUT has] had a great deal of influence,” Steadman continues. “There are a couple times we scratch our heads and wonder why Republicans are voting ‘No’ on this and then we find out CUT’s position on it.”
However, with the potential for a swing in the majority (Heath says he’s cautiously optimistic the Senate will remain blue in this election), CUT’s positions could become more influential — that is, it could go from a GOP litmus test to a major factor in policy.
Rep. Saine says groups like CUT and Principles of Liberty (POL), a similar group, have been increasing their share of influence among lobbyists steadily.
“POL and CUT, they’ve been gaining the most influence in the legislature in the last couple years,” Saine says.
Democrats don’t have a comparable group to CUT, says Sen. Heath, saying that because CUT comments on every bill, there is always that standby for Republican lawmakers to rely on. And it’s that kind of foundation that could grow CUT’s influence, should party majorities shift in future elections.
Now every legislator pointed out that they make their own choices and survey a wide variety of outside groups when they are deciding to vote on a bill. Heath says there are hundreds of lobbying groups in Denver and he listens to everyone, including CUT.
“My way of looking at it is, I will listen to everybody to get their point of view … [but] I think my constituents matter more than any one advocacy group,” says Heath.
Some major influential groups at the statehouse include Bell Policy Center, Center on Law and Policy, the American Civil Liberties Union and more individualized advocacy groups.
Sen. Ellen Roberts (R-Durango) says CUT has an anti-rural bias and so she has had to buck the party’s tie to CUT and pay attention to some of those more individualized and localized groups (resulting in one of the lowest CUT scores for a Republican at 40.74).
“I listen to all perspectives on any given bill, but some groups are more relevant to my district than others,” Roberts says.
“Voting for favorable grades on a scorecard from any group is not a way to responsibly legislate,” Roberts says. “Especially for grades on arbitrary scorecards from organizations who fail to consider the whole state, not just their own backyard.”
In the end, Democrats are not afraid to tout their low CUT score as a badge of honor, and some may have even voted against bills simply because CUT was in favor of it.
“Democrats also look at [our policy on bills] but when they see we support it, they tend to oppose it,” Golyanksky says.
“Some of my more liberal colleagues take pride in scoring as close to zero as possible while my conservative friends hope for a high ranking,” says Rep. Chris Holbert (R-Douglas; CUT score: 100).
“I’ve had Democrats cite the POL or CUT score as their reason to not vote for something,” Saine says. “Sometimes they’ve said ‘If it’s got a good CUT score, I’m voting against it.’ That was a joke, but it shows you they’re paying attention to it.”
Having vehement opponents of the group is good for CUT, Golyanksky says, because it means they’re doing their job of upholding beliefs that aren’t always popular.
“You know what Winston Churchill said is it’s good to have enemies because it means you stood for something one time in your life,” says Golyanksky. “I’m proud of having enemies and you can quote me on that.”