Mar 11, 2024 - Politics

Capitol Pulse: Democrats advance bill to sidestep Colorado transparency law

Illustration of a megaphone made out of the dome of the Colorado State Capitol.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

πŸ”” This is a regular feature designed to get you smarter, faster about what's happening at the Statehouse.

What the public can see in the lawmaking process at the state Capitol is about to get dimmer.

The latest: The Democratic-led state Legislature is nearing a final vote on legislation to narrow what is considered "public business" and allow members to meet and discuss legislation via email and text messaging without full disclosure.

Why it matters: State lawmakers are making it harder for the public and press to hold them accountable.

State of play: Twice in the past year, Colorado lawmakers faced lawsuits for violating the state's open meetings laws through electronic communications β€” one for secretly deciding how taxpayer dollars are spent and another from two of its own members about the use of encrypted messaging systems to discuss legislation and votes.

How it works: Under current law, a public meeting is defined as any in which two or more members discuss substantive public business or take action. This includes those held electronically, via email or messaging service. The meetings require timely notice and recorded minutes.

Yes, but: The legislation sponsored by the Senate president and House speaker would exempt electronic messaging from the open meetings rules, meaning lawmakers could discuss and decide public policy without disclosure.

  • The communications are still subject to open records laws, but broad latitude in current law allows them to be deleted at any point.
  • The bill also would exclude "interpersonal, administrative, or logistical" discussions from the definition of "public business."

Threat level: "The people of this state will likely know nothing about these discussions at the time they occur or at any time afterward," warned Jeff Roberts, a former Denver Post reporter and the executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition.

What they're saying: Top lawmakers argue the voter-approved Sunshine Law passed in 1972 needs modernization for the digital age.

  • House Speaker Pro Tem Chris deGruy Kennedy (D-Lakewood) said they need to be able to discuss legislation and votes in private to do their job effectively. To do otherwise "really would cripple the ability for us to do the work," he said at a recent hearing.
  • He argued the bill "does not make our processes less transparent; rather, it sets a clear standard."

What's next: The House is set to take a final vote as early as Monday and send it to the governor for his signature this week β€” which ironically is Sunshine Week, the annual celebration of open government.

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