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Colorado Senate Passes Bill Allowing Private Small Group Meetings

The legislation would allow lawmakers to meet and communicate in groups small enough that they don’t constitute a voting majority of a committee or chamber, codifying practices that were longstanding prior to being challenged last year.

The Colorado Senate passed a bill Monday, March 4, that exempts legislators from some parts of the state’s open-meetings law, essentially allowing what had been longstanding practices in the Capitol before they were challenged in court last year.

The bill, SB24-157, would allow lawmakers to meet and communicate in groups small enough that they don’t constitute a voting majority of a committee or chamber. It would also tweak state law to make clear that digital communications between legislators don’t constitute a meeting.

The measure passed the Democratic-majority Senate on a party-line vote, and it now heads to the House.

The measure, backed by Senate President Steve Fenberg and House Speaker Julie McCluskie, has been pitched as a way to update the open-meetings law and ensure its workability inside the Capitol, where legislators often talk informally about bills and amendments.

But the bill has triggered concerns from transparency advocates. Groups including the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition worry it would go too far in tweaking the state’s transparency laws and in allowing lawmakers to meet in informal groups and communicate electronically.

The bill was drafted months after two House Democrats — Reps. Bob Marshall and Elisabeth Epps — sued the House and its leadership in July, alleging repeated open-meetings violations. Legislative leaders settled that lawsuit, but lawmakers have expressed confusion and frustration about the law and the settlement in the months since.

“In recent years, it has become obvious to most of us who do work in this building day in, day out that the open-meetings law doesn’t apply in a way that makes a lot of sense in today’s world for the General Assembly,” Fenberg told lawmakers during a committee hearing last month. “I think folks have known for a long time … that there’s sort of a natural tension with the open-meetings law and with the practicality of the day-to-day work and business of having conversations with one another.”

Epps has filed a competing bill, HB24-1303, that would tweak the open-meetings law. A hearing has not been scheduled.

Amid pushback against his version, Fenberg briefly delayed an initial vote in February. He later tweaked the measure slightly, and it passed a committee last week.

The changes allow some more material to be public and open the door for legislative leaders to discuss more regularly how the law applies to the legislature.

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