In the weeks since the Colorado legislative session ended, calls for Gov. John Hickenlooper toveto House Bill 1036 have come from the political left, right and center, from government watchdog organizations, citizen rights and tax reform activists and from representatives of the sovereign Ute Mountain Ute tribe in southwest Colorado. Whatever happens by next Friday, when the deadline to sign the bill arrives, wrangling over its contents and legitimacy will continue indefinitely. “Litigation will follow a signature from the governor. It’s a certainty,” Jennifer Weddle, attorney for the Ute Mountain Ute, told the Colorado Independent. She said the tribe is deeply concerned the bill would limit protection against the kind of voter suppression efforts that have plagued Indian voters in the United States for decades. “Whether a suit is filed by the [tribe], by an individual member of the tribe or by a Colorado citizen, the process by which the bill was passed was so broken that litigation is certain.”
The “process” referred to by Weddle is the rushed melding of House Bill 1036 with Senate Bill 155 undertaken in the chaotic final hours of the legislative session, which ended two weeks ago. The House bill (pdf), sponsored by Littleton Republican Jim Kerr, would allow officials to deny open records requests tied to ongoing state investigations, including police investigations, for example, and investigations into energy-industry accidents. The Senate bill (pdf), sponsored by Boulder Democrat Rollie Heath, would limit records requests on elections materials and voter ballots in particular.
Both bills have their detractors. Durango-based environmental attorney Travis Stills, for one, told the Independent that some state officials would undoubtedly leverage the new law to foil attempts to monitor public health threats. “Getting information regarding illegal spills and permitted pollution releases can already be made difficult by some state officials who habitually attempt to protect polluters,” Stills wrote in an email. “The ability to use Colorado Open Records Act requests could be thwarted by simply declaring an ongoing investigation and then maintaining an open investigation indefinitely. Simply opening an investigation could close the agency records.” Despite such concerns, the House bill passed through legislative committees and was debated in the full chamber. Detractors voiced their opinions on the record.