Senate tamps down on government passive surveillance. House debates minimum wage for five hours. Bill encourages water conservation. Both chambers say access to info tech is a right.

Senate treads thin line between serving justice and protecting privacy with passive surveillance bill

While a national debate rages about the eyes and ears of the National Security Agency, state Rep. Polly Lawerence of Douglas County and Sen. Mark Scheffel of Parker are carrying a very popular bill to limit the amount of time governmental bodies store surveillance and the public has access to them.

HB 1152 would require all government passive surveillance records like videos of Colfax sidewalks from HALO cameras or the many thousand shots of license plates taken by scanners on streets across the state to be destroyed within one year of recording, or three years if the records are involved in a criminal proceeding. Both Lawrence and Scheffel spoke of converstaions with constituents who feel uneasy about the rapid uptick in surveillance technology couple with a lack of legislation about how those records are dealt with.

THE MEASURE is flying through the Senate. It passed unanimously out of Senate Judiciary earlier this week and swooshed through a first vote on the floor today. Scheffel said that’s because his co-sponsor in the House, Lawrence, did a lot of work to assuage the fears among folks in the criminal justice community who worried that deleting the records could hinder investigations or the ability of the accused to defend themselves in court.

By the time the bill made it through the House, Lawrence had extended the general deletion date from 6 months to a year and excluded Department of Corrections videotapes. Government agencies are also able to keep records for up to three years so long as they make a note that the record may be useful to a criminal justice proceeding. For example, if a crime occurs across the street from a government building, that agency would be able to hold onto the records in case they became relevant in the case.

Those changes satisfied the Senate Judiciary Committee and turned opposition from law enforcement and victims’ rights groups into a wary neutral stance on the bill.

“The sheriffs are not comfortable with the bill. They don’t want to actively oppose it but they feel like … there may be some records [deleted] that would pertain to cases that are open,” said Peg Ackerman, who lobbies for Colorado’s sheriffs, when the bill came up before Senate Judiciary earlier this week.

Ackerman acknowledged that the state’s sheriffs reluctantly took a neutral stance on the bill after surveying some of their own departments that, for example, scan license plates in government parking lots and delete most of those records within a few months anyway.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado is also supporting the bill but wishes the deletion timeframe was  much shorter — after 48 hours for feeds from HALO cameras installed on busy streets like Colfax, or the very cheap license plate scanners that snap thousands of location-tagged photos every day.

“With license plate readers, for instance, you could have all the data from readers over the course of two years and from that data it’s very easy to track what a person’s daily routines are like, where they work, where they shop, where they go to church — that’s where we have real concerns,” said ACLU Spokesman John Krieger.

The ACLU released a 2013 nation-wide report on Passive Surveillance called, “You are Being Tracked.”

Widespread support of the passive surveillance bill gave lawmakers a satisfying way to indicated that Colorado’s local and state government isn’t like — and does not approve of —  the NSA’s nosy federal overlords.

Sen. Kevin Lundberg of Berthoud quoted the 4th Amendment, saying the bill goes a long way to protect “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures…”

Senate President Morgan Carroll of Aurora spoke about visiting the Soviet Union and noted that a major feature of a police state is the feeling that the government is constantly watching all its citizens, even those who are not suspected of breaking the law.

All agreed that, after much compromise, the bill as currently drafted balances privacy rights with the preservation of important criminal justice records. Ultimately, legislators on both sides of the aisle see the measure as a preventative step in a world in which constant surveillance is becoming ubiquitous.

“We’re not trying to frustrate the wheels of justice, but trying to honor the citizen’s rights to conduct their lives as they see best with out constant oversight from their Government. You cant’t walk down the street today with out several cameras clicking away,” concluded Lundberg.

The measure will come up for a final vote tomorrow in the Senate.


House debates minimum wage for nearly five hours 

$40. That’s how much you would have earned if you were a colorado minimum wage worker being paid to sit through today’s House debate on whether to pass a resolution suggesting that the federal government raise the minimum wage.

“We can have people working 40hrs a week on minimum wage and still be living under the federal poverty line. That to me seems so adverse to encouraging people to get out and work a full day and then provide for their families,” said Rep. Jovan Melton of Aurora, one of resolution 1012‘s sponsors.

The resolution’s other sponsor, Dominick Moreno of Commerce City, added that about 67 percent of Colorado voters support raising the minimum wage, according to the latest Quinnipiac poll.

While minimum wage workers gathered on the Capitol steps calling for the resolution in support of raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, the debate essentially exploded on the House floor.

Minority leader Brian DelGrosso of Loveland lampooned Democrats for introducing the resolution late last night and bringing it to the floor today without asking for any Republican input. He kicked off a lengthy serious of proposed amendments that all aimed towards adding other statements to the resolution, including a survey that found 50 percent of business owners say they would have to lay off staff if the minimum wage were raised. He also cited a Congressional Budge Office report saying the raise could result in the loss of 500,000 jobs nationwide.

Democrats hurled back with other figures from the CBO report, especially one saying a minimum wage increase could lift 900,000 Americans out of poverty. Rep. Diane Mitch-Bush of Steamboat Springs noted that raising the minimum wage in Colorado to $8 an hour actually reduced unemployment by more than 1 percent. Rep. Angela Williams of Denver added that the average minimum wage worker is a 35 years old woman, which means lots of families are struggling to get by on that $8 an hour.

After tinkering with the language and deciding not to send the resolution to a committee for further debate and public testimony, the House passed the measure 38-24 at about 2 p.m.. Tomorrow the Senate will have at it.


Senate moves legislation to encourage water conservation 


Colorado’s antiquated use-it-or-lose-it water-rights policy is keeping many farmers on the Western Slope from upgrading their systems for fear of forfeiting their rights to draw water out of mountain streams simply because the upgrades would allow them to draw less.

After months of discussions with western slope farmers and Colorado conservationists, Sen. Gail Schwartz of Snowmass brought a bill to the Senate floor today to change those rigid rules and encourage Colorado’s western producers to innovate in irrigation without fear. 

Right now farmers’ water rights are essentially two-fold — a certain amount for the crops themselves, and a certain amount they’re allowed to pull out of the stream to move the water they’ll be using to irrigate the crops. That secondary water, known as “non-consumptive,” is supposed to end up back in the stream downriver. SB 23 addresses the non-consumptive water issue by allowing farmers who figure out ways to use water more efficiently —  thereby leaving more of water in the stream — to retain their rights to that water if something should go wrong with their new system and they have to revert back to less efficient methods. 

As with most matters relating to Colorado’s convoluted system of water laws, the bill is confusing. But Schwartz’s explanation of the legislation was short and to the point: “This gives folks who are interested in making efficiency improvements some support.”

Doug Robotham, director of water projects at the Nature Conservancy, expanded on that sentiment BY saying his organization looks forward to the public, private and non-profit partnerships the bill would allow. Robotham said that, in many cases, organizations his own may be able to cost-share as much as 50 percent of an farmer’s investment in simple water-saving measures such as turning an earthen water ditch into an underground PVC pipe.

Currently, diverting water for irrigation can sweep away entire high-altitude mountain streams, cutting off fish and other wildlife entirely. Ultimately, Robatham said, passing SB 23 would mean more water, more consistently in Colorado’s streams and rivers.

The measure got initial approval in the Senate today and will likely see a final vote tomorrow.


Senate sends bill to increase funding for oil & gas inspections and cleanups to Gov’s desk

A bill to move the two-year cap on the oil and gas conservation and environmental response fund from $4 million to $6 million will head to the Governor’s desk after final bipartisan approval in the Senate today.

About 90 percent of the response fund comes from quarterly levies on the sales value of oil and gas produced in the state. Raising the cap allows the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to grow along with oil and gas production — adding inspectors and the like as needed — while also funding long-range environmental studies on topics such as air quality.

Sen. Mary Hodge of Brighton, who sponsored HB 1077 , noted on the floor yesterday that the response fund accounts for about 75 percent the total budget of the COGCC, the agency that regulates oil and gas production in the state.


Colorado becomes first state in nation to call for info tech access as disability right 

Both the House and Senate passed joint resolution 1011 today asserting that people with cognitive disabilities have a fundamental right to information technology.

“What this resolution does is say people with disabilities should have access to the technology that allows them to do more and live more freely. When we ensure access to information and technology, we increase job opportunities for people with disabilities and reduce dependence on public programs,” said Rep. Amy Stephens of Monument, the resolution’s sponsor in the House. 

In the Senate, sponsor Irene Aguilar of Denver noted that expanding online access for Coloradans with cognitive disabilities would open new markets, create jobs, allow for their participation in social networks such as Facebook.

Those quality of life changes may ultimately reduce health care costs, she said.

Stephens spoke of many of Colorado’s wounded warriors who have been cut out of the digital world often due to financial, but sometimes also physical, barriers. The United Nations has also recently turned its attention to the issue, with the motto “Disabled, but not disqualified,” for a multilateral effort to bridge the digital divide for folks with disabilities.

The resolution got strong bipartisan support in both chambers.