By Jeffrey A. Roberts
CFOIC Executive Director
If you think the cost of obtaining public records in Colorado is too high now, you’re not going to like what will happen in 2024.
The maximum hourly rate state and local government entities can charge to process requests made under the Colorado Open Records Act (CORA) rises every five years with inflation. Set at $30 when the legislature passed House Bill 14-1193 in 2014, the rate was reset to $33.58 on July 1, 2019.
Two years from now, it’ll rise again — by a lot.
To get a good picture of how today’s soaring inflation will likely affect CORA’s research-and-retrieval rate, the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition contacted Natalie Mullis, an economist and director of Legislative Council, the General Assembly’s non-partisan research staff. Mullis helpfully answered our question by plugging the latest Consumer Price Index numbers (for urban consumers in the Denver-Aurora-Lakewood area) into the spreadsheet she developed to adjust the CORA fees rate in 2019.
If the rate were to be reset this July 1, it would be $37.99 an hour, Mullis estimated. That would be an increase of 13.1 percent over the current rate, meaning a records request that takes 10 hours to process (the first hour must be provided at no charge under the statute) would cost nearly $342 rather than $302.
But that’s not the end of the story with two years to go before the actual new rate is calculated.
The 2024 rate could be less than $37.99 — but only if the Denver metro area experiences deflation between now and then, Mullis told CFOIC in an email. “The only way that’s going to happen is if we have a seriously bad recession,” Mullis wrote. “Even if inflation were zero between now and then, it would still be $37.99 in 2024.”
Applying the annual growth rates in Legislative Council’s March 2022 forecast for the Denver-Aurora-Lakewood CPI-U, the hourly rate would be $40.38 in 2024.
That’s a 20.3 percent increase over the current rate. The 10-hour records request that now costs $302 would cost $363.
Mullis cautioned CFOIC that the CPI-U “is very difficult to forecast because so many unforeseeable variables affect it, such as pandemics, wars, etc.”
Still, the estimates should be alarming for anyone concerned about access to public records in Colorado.
CFOIC has highlighted exorbitant CORA fees for several years. And in a 2020 report, researched and written by 2021 University of Denver Sturm College of Law graduate Justin Twardowski, we called on the legislature to reevaluate the law’s “unbalanced” research-and-retrieval fee provision.
The report noted that CORA’s current maximum rate is more than the mean hourly wage for paralegals in Colorado and more than some government employees are paid to process records requests. When governments multiply the rate by many hours, which happens frequently, “the result is the same problem HB 14-1193 sought to fix by capping the rate: unaffordable charges that stymie the public’s access to public information,” Twardowski wrote.
“And because CORA does not require governments to provide itemized explanations of research-and-retrieval charges, many records requesters are left unsure as to whether the fees are justified and without recourse if they are not.”
An effort to address CORA and Colorado Criminal Justice Records Act fees fizzled during the 2022 legislative session. One provision of a bill that never got introduced would have entitled records requesters to itemized receipts listing the number of hours spent on a request and a description of what was done to provide the records. The proposal did not adjust CORA’s hourly research-and-retrieval rate.
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