2024 Leg Session, Exclusives, Gold Dome, Transparency, Uncategorized

Stein: Don’t let lawmakers get away with open meetings carve-out

There is an old saying attributed to Otto Von Bismarck: “If you like laws and sausages you should never watch either one being made.” Certainly, this applies to sausage making, but in 1972 the citizens of Colorado decided that it should not apply to lawmaking. So, via a citizen’s initiative we implemented the Colorado Open Meetings Law: also known as the “Sunshine Law.”

With only modest modifications, this law has remained in effect for over fifty years, ensuring citizens, journalists, yes, lobbyists and even the executive branch of Colorado’s state government, the capacity to view the legislative “sausage making process.” The law does this by requiring open meetings, and it defines a meeting quite broadly as “any kind of gathering convened to discuss public business whether in person, by telephone, electronically or other means of communications.” The transparency this law mandates is arguably one of the great success stories of our democratic process because it largely ensures that citizens can learn what their legislators are considering so that they can provide their perspective and input.

Unfortunately, the Democratic majority legislators in the Colorado legislature have determined that they know better and don’t need these pesky citizens bothering them as they draft the bills that impact us all. So having determined that allowing citizens’ this long-accepted access to the legislative process is too burdensome, the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate, co-sponsored Senate Bill 157 carving out an exemption to the open meetings law for themselves. Legislators claim they passed this to fix what we citizens view as a nonexistent problem and, no surprise here, the Democratic majorities in both chambers promptly passed it and Governor Polis quickly signed it into law. In fact, a mark of just how enthusiastic our legislators are about this bill is how rapidly it was passed and enacted, just one month.

Quite frankly for those who label themselves as “Democrats” this is an act of astonishing hypocrisy. The majority party has chosen to make its own members’ lives easier at the expense of an essential element of the democratic process: transparency.  They do so by denying the public access to key elements of the process through which lawmakers discuss, form, and develop actual legislation. Specifically, “the bill establishes that written communication, electronic or otherwise, exchanged between members of the general assembly are not subject to the COML (Colorado Open Meetings Law).”

What this really means is that now legislators can send each other text messages or set up chat groups through which they can discuss legislation and develop policy outside public purview. You can see this today down at the Capitol as legislators sit in committee hearings staring at their cell phones. Prior to cell phone they would conduct an actual open discussion but now as they hear testimony they can, and do, use text and chat to develop public policy in private.

At this point they have chosen only to eliminate a portion of the open meetings law, and only for themselves.  If this first step goes unchallenged, however, it is hard to imagine local governments, city councils, school boards, etc., not demanding and obtaining a similar exemption. If Democrats gets away with passing this bill they may well grant themselves even greater exemptions in the future.

Sausage making and law making may be ugly processes to watch but we are grateful that there are inspectors on the sausage making lines ensuring the process is safe and hygienic. The vast majority of us are too busy in our daily lives to closely watch the law-making process, but as much as we may disdain lobbyists, “special interests” and even those activists with whom we disagree, having these groups closely watching as the legislature goes about its business perform a function similar to that of the inspectors on the sausage making line. Unfortunately, this change to the law greatly limits their ability to perform this important service on our behalf.

Coloradans decided years ago that we are more likely to get better legislation with more input and more citizen involvement, not less. Now the questions are why did the current Democratic majority choose to eviscerate the open meetings law, and what comes next, the same “clarification” for our local governments, or further weakening of the law to give the legislature more room to roam with less citizen oversight?

Colorado is and remains an initiative state. Our sunshine law was created in this manner and apparently we will need to follow the same course once again to remind the folks we sent to the Capitol that their job is to serve us, not themselves. Do not let the sun go down here in Colorado.  Let’s “clarify” for our legislators what a sunshine law is supposed to do by placing an initiative on the ballot in November to restore our open meetings law.

Ben Stein previously served as  Colorado’s deputy state treasurer, as well as chief financial officer for the Colorado Department of Transportation.


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