Public money for Colorado kids with disabilities goes toward lobbying
January 31, 2016
Nearly $600,000 in public funds for people with developmental disabilities instead goes to a trade association whose lobbying at the state Capitol has resulted in a contentious relationship with parents of children with disabilities.
Parents whose young or adult children have developmental and intellectual delays have simmered for years knowing that lobbyists receive a portion of government funds dispensed for therapy, respite care, wheelchair ramps and bathroom renovations.
Their anger hit a flashpoint after a recent Denver audit found that one of Colorado's 20 community-centered boards that manage federal, state and city tax dollars for the disabled was paying its director $478,000 in salary and benefits and funding Costco membership and home Internet for employees.
The boards are not subject to open-records laws and, over the years, have denied families' requests for financial information, although each board receives 82 to 94 percent of its budget from public dollars.
Parents have referred to the payments to Alliance Colorado, which represents the 20 boards at the Capitol, as a “secret fee.”
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Legislation introduced this month could force the boards to open their books.
The boards' trade association and lobbying group, Alliance Colorado, has not taken an official position on the bill. But Alliance executives have told policy makers the nonprofit association is concerned the legislation will create time and financial burdens for the boards.
While it's common for public entities, such as city districts or community health centers, to spend public dollars on lobbying, it's a concern when their lobbying is at odds with the people they serve, said Elena Nunez, executive director of Colorado Common Cause, a nonpartisan organization that works for open government.
"In this case, you've got public resources being used to shield the people they serve from the information they want," she said.
"Closed-door club"Alliance operates similar to other service-provider agencies that lobby at the Capitol. Colorado's 17 community mental health centers pay a fee to the Colorado Behavioral Healthcare Council, which spends some of the funds on lobbying, for example. Still, the lobbying arm for the disability system is unique in the extent of its tumultuous relationship with families taking care of kids with disabilities.
Parents have referred to the payments to Alliance Colorado, which represents the 20 boards at the Capitol, as a "secret fee." They also have complained that Alliance is a "closed-door club" that includes just 25 of the hundreds of agencies that provide services for people with disabilities. Before admitting a new member, Alliance seeks recommendations from other agencies.
Despite requests from The Denver Post, Alliance refused to release its annual budget or a list of membership fees it receives from its 45 members – 20 community-centered boards and 25 agencies that employ therapists and home aids for people with disabilities.
Alliance has an annual budget of $667,000, of which $574,000 comes from membership dues, according to the nonprofit's federal tax records. Alliance reported spending $45,000 on lobbying, but it is unclear whether preparation for lobbying and meeting on public policy were counted as lobbying. Lobbyists have discretion when reporting their hours – some count all their work, while others count only face time with lawmakers.
Tax records show at least two of the 20 boards have spent money each year on their own lobbyists. Rocky Mountain Human Services, the target of the damaging city audit, recently suspended its lobbyist, who was paid $12,000 per year, as part of a cutback in administrative costs.
Membership dues in Alliance are 0.15 percent of each board or agency's budget for intellectual and developmental disability services, said Josh Rael, executive director of Alliance. He told The Denver Post to ask each of the 45 members for their fee payment because it was not the "role" of Alliance to release the information.
"I truly regret you are taking this as a lack of transparency," Rael said.