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Transparency bills in trouble in 2016 legislative session

By   /   March 17, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

Part 3 of 8 in the series Sunshine Week 2016
Photo By Arthur Kane

CLOSED SESSION: Colorado lawmakers already killed one bill that would increase transparency and other measures aren’t likely to pass intact.

The 2016 legislative session has not been a good one for transparency legislation.

A bill requiring governments to provide data instead of print outs of databases died. A bill requiring nonprofits that receive most of their cash from taxpayers to be subject to open records will likely be gutted of the open records provision.

And legislation requiring the state judicial department to abide by open records laws, after the courts exempted themselves from transparency requirements in 2012, doesn’t explicitly put the branch under transparency law. And the bill is slated for a committee that is known for killing legislation.

“I don’t like it,” said state Rep. Tim Dore, R-Elizabeth, of the judicial bill. “It doesn’t do much more than the (judiciary’s administrative records) rules.”

RELATED: Lawmaker promises court records bill after Watchdog.org stories.

Dore said he would try to amend state Rep. Polly Lawrence’s House Bill 1346 if it came to the floor, but it’s likely to die in the House State, Veterans Affairs and Military Affairs Committee, which is known as the kill committee.

Lawrence, R-Douglas County, said she is trying to address issues such as internal investigations and personnel matters, where the court’s rules differ from the Colorado Open Records Act , but concedes it might be another year before any legislation makes it through the process. She did say her bill doesn’t address the Colorado Commission on Judicial Discipline keeping its budget secret or the state public defender refusing to release the costs of death penalty cases.

“I think this a first step,” she said, adding she too hopes to amend the bill if it makes it out of committee. “The fact that it went to state affairs doesn’t bodes well about it getting out.”

Photo Courtesy Colorado Legislature

BACKING OFF: State Rep. Polly Lawrence promised to put the judiciary back under state open records laws, but fellow lawmakers say her bill wouldn’t accomplish that.

A bill that would have stopped governments from modifying databases and spreadsheets before releasing them under CORA died in committee last month, and a working group will meet after the session to try to put together legislation that is acceptable to all sides.

Senate Bill 37 sponsor Rep. John Kefalas, D-Fort Collins, said there were concerns from the Secretary of State that government couldn’t redact confidential data and that data mining companies would overwhelm the system.

“I think it’s a positive development that we have a commitment from the Secretary of State to convene a technical group to start working on the issue,” Kefalas told Watchdog.org.

Deputy Secretary of State Suzanne Staiert said the bill wasn’t workable because of technical and security issues.

“Some of the data we are required to collect and the code to build the database contains confidential information,” she wrote in a statement to Watchdog.org. “The Secretary of State is a leader in providing open election and business data online.  We agree with the sponsor’s goal in furthering transparency and look forward to working with the sponsor in hosting stakeholder meetings over the summer to work out these technical issues.”

A bill requiring audits and transparency for nonprofits that receive the bulk of their funding from taxpayers will likely proceed without the organizations being subject to CORA.

Photo Courtesy Colorado General Assembly website

NO SUPPORT: State Sen. Irene Aguilar, D-Denver, said leadership failed to support her push for more transparency in government-funded nonprofits.

“The Senate leadership didn’t really support the open record request and didn’t really give me a reason why, except that once the camel puts his nose under the tent, it could lead to all kinds of nonprofits being asked for open records,” said State Sen. Irene Aguilar, D-Denver, who sponsored Senate Bill 38.

Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition executive director Jeff Roberts conceded this has not been a great session for transparency, but points to some small positives, including legislative staff agreeing to release a database of state statutes for free.

“This might be the type of thing that takes a while for people to understand,” he said of the electronic records bill. “About 20 other states require the data to be released electronically if that’s how it’s kept. I’m going to have faith that we can figure this out and figure this out in a way that (governments) won’t be fearful of the legislation and actually support it.”

Part of 8 in the series Sunshine Week 2016


Arthur was formerly the bureau chief for Colorado Watchdog.