Springs’ lobbyist has little to report

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Business leaders say work is just beginning as lobbyist lays groundwork, eyes money

Colorado Springs’ new federal lobbyist has yet to produce any tangible monetary benefits to the city, but the broad coalition of business leaders that hired her aren’t concerned yet.

“It takes months and months,” said Stephannie Finley, president of government affairs for the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce, the organization leading the lobbying effort. “We weren’t expecting immediate returns.”

The lobbyist, Elise Pickering of Mehlman, Vogel and Castagnetti, was hired in Janurary by a coalition of nine local organizations and much her time has been spent mapping the region’s priorities while Congress argued over the 2011 budget.

Pickering said she’s met with the chamber, decided priorities and kept an eye on money that could be available from federal agencies. Her firm makes that possible.

“We have both Democrats and Republicans here,” she said. “So we can always make sure we have the right people talking to each other at the right time,” she said. “That’s important in Washington.”

Talking is a big part of the lobbying game in Washington, as it sometimes can take years for legislation to find its way through both houses of Congress and into the President’s hands.

“In Washington, there’s a lot of ‘hurry-up-and-wait,’” she said. “But then, suddenly, it’s time for action. You have to lay the groundwork, have the relationships in place and be ready to move when it’s time — or you miss out on opportunities.”

The nine groups involved in hiring Pickering are prepared to wait; they’ve signed her up to represent the region for the next three years.

Pickering is currently working on finding grant money from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The chamber is working on a plan with the Palisades at Broadmoor, a senior-living facility, to use the funds for aging, health and wellness programs.

“We’re working out details of what that plan might take now,” Finley said. “And then she’ll apply for the grant money once we get it all worked out.”

The group has already met with Rep. Doug Lamborn’s office to discuss the project, she said.

The effort takes a partnership both with the local community and its federal representatives. And partnerships like the one with Palisades are what made Colorado Springs’ lobbying effort possible in the first place, Finley said. The city couldn’t have come up with the $100,000 to pay Pickering on its own.

The chamber took the lead, and brought in the Colorado Springs Economic Development Corp., Colorado Springs Utilities, Colorado Springs Realtors Association, Ent Federal Credit Union, El Paso County, the Colorado Association of Mechanics and Plumbers and the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments.

Each pitched in $10,000 to pay the fee.

“That extra $10,000, that’s a nut I have to crack in the next six months,” Finley said.

Colorado Springs’ approach to lobbying is unusual — but won’t be for long, said Floyd Ciruli, of Ciruli and Associates, a consulting firm based in Denver.

“It’s the wave of the future,” he said. “Municipalities just don’t have the extra money for lobbying, and it’s the first thing to go when it’s up against potholes or police. I think we’re going to see a lot more of these kinds of partnerships. It’s a powerful thing.”

Powerful because the lobbyist can point to support from a broad based business coalition, Ciruli said.

“It’s not just the city or from the county,” he said. “It’s from business, it’s from the community. That’s hard to ignore, especially for the Senators. Colorado Springs is just a single piece of the people they represent — and it’s a Republican piece. But with this many groups involved, it’s difficult to ignore.”

That means that Pickering has the ears of the entire Colorado delegation, not just Lamborn, a Republican who represents El Paso County.

“She’ll be responsible for working with him, certainly, on the military piece,” he said. “It’s important that he’s part of the majority in the House now. That means it will be easier to get money coming in.”

Easier — but not that easy, said Pickering, who notes the current environment in Congress is “very difficult, the most difficult I’ve seen in 20 years.”

Pickering is fighting for attention for the area even as Congress is fighting with one another — over reducing the deficit, raising the debt ceiling and health care reform.

And for the first three months she was on the job, Congressional leaders were still wrangling over the 2011 budget. Her first opportunities will come as they take up the 2012 budget.

Pickering isn’t waiting for agreement in Congress. She’s watching federal agencies, like Health and Human Services, to bring more attention — and money — to Colorado Springs. Currently, money is available for aging grants, work with seniors. Pickering is looking to federal agencies and their grant programs to bring possible attention — and money — to Colorado Springs.

“We don’t just talk to Congress, we keep an eye out for other money as well,” she said. “Agencies and the White House will have programs that the area could benefit from. My job is to watch all of it, and see how it could benefit the Springs.”

5 focus areas for Springs’ federal lobbyist

Military

Colorado Springs has five military bases, and construction is under way at two, the Air Force Academy and Fort Carson.

“We want to really protect that piece,” said Stephannie Finley, the chamber’s vice president of government affairs, said. “So that’s one of the things on the lobbyist’s list. It’s a high priority for us.”

That makes sense to government and political consultant Floyd Ceruli.

“Colorado Springs is the federal government in Colorado, outside the federal building in Denver,” he said. “It’s the most impressive military presence in the nation, and that needs to be nurtured and protected. It could grow even larger, given the right effort.”

Transportation

The group has three major transportation projects and is working to narrow down which one to push for in Washington.

The first is to widen Interstate 25 through the city. Second and third, is a new I-25 exchange for Highway 24 and an exchange at Peterson Air Force Base to relieve traffic getting onto the base.

Energy

Even as the federal budget gets tighter — and earmarks become a thing of the past — energy is still something the nation is investing in. Finley said the region wants to take advantage of that, and push for energy dollars for every kind of energy.

“We used to have the New Energy Economy,” she said. “But there is so much more out there, we need a combination of old and new energy, so we’re pushing for that in Washington as well.”

Health and wellness

Health care is more than 17 percent of the Gross Domestic Product, and Colorado Springs could benefit from the presence of the United States Olympic Committee and other wellness programs, Finley said.

It’s this effort that currently has the most traction in Washington, with funds available from Health and Human Services.

“Budgets are tight,” Finley said. “But you have to understand where the pockets of money are. We send money to D.C. every year, and we need to know how to bring that back to the area. There’s money available, without the new budget, it’s a matter of accessing what’s already there.”

Sports economy

Again, capitalizing on the USOC’s presence in the Springs, the coalition hopes to bring more federal money here to focus on things like recreation at Fountain Creek.

“We really got a lot of synergy from the Oklahoma City trip, when we saw what they did for sports,” Finley said. “We believe there are opportunities here — and that’s why this is one of the things on her list.”