Public money supports conservative Colorado lobbying group
Zoe Schacht/Colorado Newsline
A group of Colorado business elites has made its name known in state politics. But membership in the conservative group that lobbies for property tax cuts and maintaining the Denver camping ban is not exclusive to presidents and CEOs of private companies. Higher-ups in publicly-funded institutions such as universities have a seat at the table, meaning public money is being used to support the group’s conservative agenda.
The group, Colorado Concern, has been involved in politics since 1986. Colorado Concern describes itself as “an exclusive alliance of top executives.” Members are state leaders in finance, banking, energy, real estate, nonprofits and higher education. Colorado Concern was founded by Larry Mizel, a longtime developer and high-profile fundraiser for former President Donald Trump. The group now has 140 members.
During the 2022 legislative session, the group worked for a large property tax cut through Initiative 75. The tax cut aimed to combat the increase in property valuations used for taxes across Colorado. Had it made it to the ballot and passed, the initiative in 2023 alone would have deprived school districts, public safety entities, county governments, libraries and other local districts of $1.3 billion.
Colorado Concern members who represent higher education institutions are Todd Saliman, president of the University of Colorado system; Tony Frank, chancellor of Colorado State University; Colleen Walker, CEO of the Auraria Higher Education Center; and Janine Davidson, president of Metropolitan State University.
Members involved in nonprofit organizations and other institutions that receive federal grants and public funding are George Sparks, president and CEO of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science; Phillip Washington, CEO of Denver International Airport; Robin Wittenstein, CEO of Denver Health; Douglas Jackson, president and CEO of Project C.U.R.E; and David Schunk, president and CEO of Volunteers for America.
Colorado Concern declined to comment on memberships and the group’s work in state legislation.
Through open records requests, Colorado Newsline was able to determine the annual cost of membership dues and source of those funds. Member’s annual dues range between $5,000 and $10,000. The University of Colorado, Metropolitan State University and the Auraria Higher Education Center pay $10,000 annually.
The University of Colorado pays for Saliman’s dues through interest on investments made by the university. The CSU foundation pays for Frank’s membership dues. The foundation’s stated goal is to aid in enhancing facilities and programs and invest in charitable, scientific or educational purposes that will benefit CSU.
Metropolitan State University’s state funding covers Davidson’s dues. State funding and other non-state funding sources for the Auraria Higher Education Center cover Walker’s membership charges.
Denver Health, Project C.U.R.E and Volunteers for America did not disclose how much they pay in membership dues or how the institutions fund the payment.
Mike Kopp, president and CEO of Colorado Concern, served as a Republican Colorado senator, including as Senate minority leader, between 2007 and 2011. In an email exchange between Kopp and Saliman, uncovered in an open records request and prompted by Colorado Newsline’s inquiries to Colorado Concern, Kopp advised Colorado Concern members not to disclose information about their membership.
“Our policy is to not comment on member dues, including amounts and sources of member dues,” Kopp said in the email.
Colorado Newsline attempted to contact Kopp for an interview but did not receive a response.
University of Colorado’s involvement
Through open records requests, Newsline learned Saliman has never attended a Colorado Concern meeting. Based on his online calendar, he went to lunch once with Kopp.
The university has many government relations, according to Ken McConnellogue, interim vice president for communications for the University of Colorado. McConnellogue said Colorado Concern’s lobbying efforts are not always parallel with the university.
The University of Colorado’s involvement helps the university maintain relationships with potential donors and creates networking opportunities for alumni, McConnellogue said. But he did not know of specific Colorado Concern networking opportunities that involved participation from anyone with the university.
Saliman declined to comment on his membership or work with Colorado Concern.
Other higher education institutions
Tiana Kennedy, associate vice chancellor for Colorado State University, said the university does not comment on memberships for organizations it’s a part of.
Colorado Newsline reached out to the Auraria Higher Education Center multiple times but did not receive a response.
“My work within Colorado Concern gives MSU Denver a seat at the table with more than 100 CEOs with unique perspectives, including other university leaders who want to ensure higher education is fulfilling its role as the indispensable provider of talent and skill driving our economy,” Davidson said in a statement regarding her membership with Colorado Concern.
Colorado Concern used to be seen as a more moderate group with less partisan agendas, according to Elliot Goldbaum, director of strategic communication for the Colorado Fiscal Institute, a nonpartisan organization that provides information and analysis of Colorado’s fiscal and economic issues. Since Kopp became president and CEO of Colorado Concern in 2016, Goldbaum said the group focuses on more conservative causes like tax cuts.
“From the perspective of the property tax cuts, I saw them as being more aligned with where the GOP was coming from on some of the things that they were saying and talking about when it comes to property taxes,” Goldbaum said.
Goldbaum said Colorado Concern is not the only group with members in publicly-funded institutions lobbying at the Capitol. Having a “seat at the table” and potentially being able to have a vote is what might drive higher education’s involvement in lobbying groups.
“In the case of Concern, they’re up there sometimes directly influencing those negotiations that are kind of like one side of the negotiating table,” Goldbaum said. “So, I think you’re getting access, and I think that you’re getting a voice with a powerful group that can determine the outcome of policy.”
Colorado Concern’s members' elite status allows for financial leverage when it comes to promoting initiatives and other costly lobbying efforts. According to Scott Wasserman, president of the Bell Policy Center, it’s nearly impossible to run a ballot measure with less than $5 million.
“Power and money means so much more than anyone is willing to publicly admit,” Wasserman said.