Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper on Friday afternoon announced he had vetoed three bills passed in the 2018 legislative session that ended last month, including one that would have placed autopsy reports on children off limits to the public except under limited circumstances.
Senate Bill 223 was brought to the General Assembly by El Paso County Coroner Robert Bux and the state organization of county coroners, who were concerned that releasing details of autopsy reports on minors would violate a family’s right to privacy.
But news organizations, including the Colorado Press Association and the Colorado Broadcasters Association, argued that cutting off public access to the reports could make it harder to uncover deaths caused by abuse.
A 2012 investigation by The Denver Post and KUSA-9News found that 72 of 175 Colorado children who had died of child abuse in the previous five years “were known to the government system that was supposed to keep them safe,” according to the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, which also opposed Senate Bill 223.
El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder told the Senate Judiciary Committee in April that releasing autopsy reports serves no purpose to the public and does not outweigh the privacy rights of families.
Peter Carey, chief of police for Colorado Springs, also backed the measure. Carey said in a letter to the Senate that “families in crisis deserve to keep private the details of their child’s death.”
SB 223 would have allowed autopsy reports on minors to be provided only to people and groups such as the parents or legal guardians of a deceased child; law enforcement and district attorneys investigating the death; a defendant in a related criminal case; a local or regional child fatality prevention review team; the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which tracks violent deaths; and donor or other organ-procurement organizations.
In his veto letter, Hickenlooper said that the parties on both sides share a common goal: to limit the deaths of children and prevent trauma to their families. But, he added, “We need not look far for examples in which public disclosure, media scrutiny and good journalism led to positive changes to prevent tragedies, particularly in areas such as child neglect, abuse and trafficking.”
The governor further said that “sunshine on uncomfortable and painful topics such as youth deaths can lead to more positive outcomes for other youths.”
Republican Sen. Bob Gardner of Colorado Springs was the sponsor of SB 223; Democratic Rep. Matt Gray of Broomfield carried the bill in the House.
Gardner told Colorado Politics he was disappointed by the veto. “I introduced it at the request” of the state coroner’s association and all 64 county coroners, he said, to “prevent grieving families who lost a minor child from being exposed to further trauma at an unimaginable time.”
Gardner said he was mindful that opponents felt “unlimited public disclosure of information concerning teens suicide and other tragic deaths serve the interest of preventing future tragedies.” Gardner said he tried to address those concerns in the bill by ensuring that multiple agencies, suicide review boards and the Department of Human Services had full access to those records. He also pointed out that the measure passed with 96 out of 100 members of the General Assembly supporting it.
As Gardner sees it, that’s evidence that Coloradans “come down on the side of privacy of grieving families and are willing to trust the public agencies tasked with suicide prevention.”
Hickenlooper vetoed two other measures on Friday. One was House Bill 1181, which would have allowed out-of-state residents who own property in Colorado to vote in elections for special districts in which those properties are located.
Hickenlooper said in his veto message that “allowing non-Coloradans to vote in Colorado elections to select our elected representatives is poor public policy. ... We are unpersuaded that the State should allow those who spend days or weeks in Colorado to make decisions impacting those who make it their home each and every day.”
Another vetoed measure, Senate Bill 179, is a third attempt to allow those who ship tobacco out of state to claim a credit on state tobacco taxes.
“While the bill’s economic benefits appear minimal, the negative health effects of cheaper tobacco are both significant and compelling,” Hickenlooper wrote in his veto letter.
Republican Sen. Owen Hill of Colorado Springs, the measure’s Senate sponsor, said Friday evening that the legislation has been sent to the governor three times with bipartisan sponsorship and overwhelming bipartisan support. “In no way (does the change) affect consumer access to premium cigars or other tobacco products. It simply aligns excise tax law pertaining to other tobacco products when selling to consumers out of the state of Colorado with other excise tax laws, such as alcohol and gas.” Hill said the veto will force at least one Colorado company to leave the state.
He also called a foul on the governor.
“By simply allowing the bill to go into effect, it would have cost Colorado zero dollars and benefited Colorado’s small-business economy,” he said. “Rather, the governor, who says he prioritizes jobs, chose political expediency and single-handedly shut down the premium cigar e-commerce industry in the state.”
Friday’s vetoes were the first the governor handed down for measures passed in the 2018 session. He has until Friday to finish signing or taking other action on bills passed by the General Assembly.