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Local organizations spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to lobby certain bills this Colorado General Assembly session, some of which passed even though COVID-19 shifted legislative priorities.

United Power was particularly involved in lobbying a bill that helped its current predicament with its parent co-operative, Tri-State Generation and Transmission.  The local electric provider is active each legislative session through its annual $48,000 contract with lobbyist Totsy Rees Consulting and Public Affairs. Rees lobbied 52 bills for United Power this session and was most active in lobbying for House Bill 20-1225, a measure that regulates contracts between local utility companies and wholesale electric providers.

Among other provisions, HB 20-1225 says that when an electric retail company wants to withdraw from its contract with a wholesale cooperative electric association, the wholesale company “must act in good faith and fair dealing, cannot impose unreasonable contractual terms in relation to the withdrawal,” according to the bill. Gov. Jared Polis signed it into law March 27.

For a year, United Power has taken steps to terminate its contract with Tri-State, which is set to expire in 2050. The local company wants to sever ties because of Tri-State’s operational costs, to reduce customers’ rates and to generate more renewable energy.  To get out of its contract with Tri-State early, United Power needs to pay for it. Tri-State says that amount is $1.5 billion, while United Power says it should be $235 million.

Administrative Law Judge Robert Garvey, working on behalf of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, agreed on July 10 with United Power and La Plata Electric Association, a Durango company also trying to exit its contract with Tri-State. During the hearings, LPEA invoked HB 20-1225 to make its argument.

Garvey’s ruling is a recommendation. The three-member PUC will make the final decision. A similar, yet separate, process will likely occur at the federal level under the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

“It wasn’t a coincidence at all” that legislators introduced HB 20-1225 when they did, said Troy Whitmore, United Power’s government and regulatory relations officer. State Rep. Michael Weissman, an Aurora Democrat and one of the bill’s sponsors, was “very interested in our situation,” Whitmore said. Weissman told the utility last winter he was considering the legislation.

“We were not integrally involved with the introduction of that bill,” Whitmore emphasized, saying United Power didn’t ask for the bill. When it was introduced, though, Rees and United Power aggressively lobbied for it until its eventual passage.

United Power didn’t take an official position on the 51 other bills Rees watched for the co-op, according to the Colorado Secretary of State’s office. But the company wasn’t neutral on all of them. For example, Whitmore said its lobbying firm closely watched a bill that would have increased electric battery storage fees, which United Power doesn’t want to happen. The bill failed after the session resumed because COVID-19 shifted legislative priorities, Whitmore said. 

Among other local entities, the city of Commerce City spent $15,175 to lobby or monitor hundreds of bills through several lobbyists, according to an analysis of state lobbying records compiled by The Colorado Sun in partnership with the Colorado Media Project. They monitored the majority of the bills and took supportive positions on a few. One was House Bill 1143, a measure that raises fines for air and water quality violations, which became law. The city opposed the police reform bill, and House Bill 1233, which would have prohibited government entities from restricting homeless people from sleeping or camping outside. The first became law; the second didn’t.

Adams County paid Schultz Public Affairs more than $55,000 for lobbying 46 bills. The county supported House Bill 1001, a measure that raised the minimum age for nicotine products to 21, and House Bill 1265, which expands regulations for certain chemicals in the air that are considered toxic. Both became law. The county opposed House Bill 1287, a measure that would allow anyone whose state constitutional rights are infringed upon to bring a civil action in state court. The measure was voted down in March, according to the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition.

#FollowtheMoneyCO contributed to this story. #FollowtheMoneyCO is a project of the Colorado News Collaborative (COLab), with support from The Colorado Sun and Colorado Media Project. To read about statwide lobbying, see The Colorado Sun.

Photos: 1) Troy Whitmore; 2)  United Power’s battery storage site, located south of State Highway 119, which is the largest battery storage facility in the state. The batteries, built by Tesla, store energy for various purposes. United Power lobbied a bill this this legislative session that would have raised battery storage fees. It didn’t pass, though, because of a shift in legislative priorities after COVID-19. Photos courtesy of United Power