Colorado public records bill heads to Senate for debate

A state Senate committee approved a bill Tuesday to modernize Colorado’s Open Records Act and left intact a Republican amendment to have it apply to the judiciary, which courts have determined is not covered by the act.

Scenes from the seat of government on the last day of the state legislative session.

denver; denverite; colorado; government; legislation; legislature; capital; kevinjbeaty; politics; policy; senate; senator
Scenes from the seat of government on the last day of the state legislative session. denver; denverite; colorado; government; legislation; legislature; capital; kevinjbeaty; politics; policy; senate; senator
(Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

By James Anderson, Associated Press

DENVER (AP) — A state Senate committee approved a bill Tuesday to modernize Colorado’s Open Records Act and left intact a Republican amendment to have it apply to the judiciary, which courts have determined is not covered by the act.

That decision by the Appropriations Committee could jeopardize the bill’s chances of passing. Both the judicial branch and majority House Democrats oppose expanding the act to cover the judicial branch, which has its own rules for public disclosure. They say the amendment complicates a bill designed to expedite records requests, not to change the rules for which types of records can be disclosed.

Democratic Sen. John Kefalas’ bill would allow citizens to obtain and analyze public documents by requiring state agencies to provide them, with some exceptions, in their original, computer-friendly electronic formats, rather than forcing requesters to pore over paper or PDF documents.

That makes it easier for citizens to search through data, using spreadsheets or other tools to analyze salary information for public workers, budget items and crime statistics.

Some Colorado jurisdictions and agencies already provide electronic data under the open records law. But they’re not required to, meaning records requesters must frequently settle for paper records that are difficult to sort through and, under state law, cost 25 cents per page to copy, plus possible labor costs.

Under the bill, agencies receiving the requests could be exempted when they don’t have the technical ability to do so.

More than 15 states and the federal government have made it easier for the public to obtain computerized data.

Kefalas tried to remove the Republican amendment to his bill Tuesday. The GOP-led committee declined and voted 4-3 to refer it to the Senate floor for debate.

The committee recommended that more than $50,000 from the state’s general fund is needed to pay for a new position to handle the requests and other costs at the Office of the State Public Defender, which would oversee open records requests for the judiciary.

Both state supreme court justices and majority Democrats in the House oppose incorporating the judicial branch under the open records law, citing court rulings to that effect.

The amendment was introduced at an earlier hearing by Republican Sen. Ray Scott of Grand Junction. Scott said he felt it was time to reconsider what is and isn’t covered by the act. Backers of Kefalas’ bill say they only intended to expedite records access under the act.

“The intent was never to undermine CORA,” Kefalas said Tuesday. “The intent has always been to strengthen CORA to make sure that digital data files are made available to the public.”

The bill was inspired by a 2015 investigation by The Coloradoan newspaper into pay equity among employees at Colorado State University. CSU refused to provide a computerized database of salaries but told the newspaper it could inspect documents containing nearly 5,000 employee salaries. Reporters spent weeks creating their own database so they could chronicle university salary disparities.