Two Colorado lawmakers want to streamline the legislature’s rarely used investigative power to compel witnesses to testify about issues and tragedies across the state, including the 2021 Marshall fire.
House Bill 1248, introduced Wednesday, would allow leaders of the state legislature to quickly form special investigative committees of lawmakers and experts and establish a clearer path for those panels to issue subpoenas.
“There’s so many things that happen (where) there’s zero accountability because it hasn’t met the threshold of a criminal act,” said Rep. Lorena Garcia, one of the prime sponsors of the bill. “But there’s still wrongdoing.”
While the legislature already has subpoena power, it hasn’t been used in decades, partly because the rules are muddled. There is a mishmash of policies dotted throughout both state statute and the legislative handbook. Some speak to the entire General Assembly, while others only address the powers of a single committee.
Congress, by comparison, frequently uses its subpoena power for a wide variety of investigations.
Garcia said her bill, also sponsored by Rep. Javier Mabrey, D-Denver, would clarify the process for Colorado. It would also allow the speedy creation of the investigative committees, which can include members beyond lawmakers.
“It’s going to be a new place where you can find that authority in a simplified, streamlined way,” Mabrey said.
Here’s how it would work: The executive committee of the legislative council, which is made up of the top Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate, would have the power year-round to create ad hoc investigative panels. The panels would have to consist of at least three state lawmakers, but could also include non-lawmakers “based on their expertise” who wouldn’t be able to cast votes.
The investigative committee would be charged with fact-finding on issues of “urgent, pressing or unmet need … that have an impact on the community, economy or society.”
The panels would be able to ask the executive committee of legislative council to issue subpoenas on their behalf. Even if the executive committee decides against the action, a vote of 30% of the investigative panel’s members could compel them to do so.
Once finished, the investigative committee can choose to refer their findings to the Colorado attorney general for further review. The panel would also issue a report on its findings.
Mabrey said beyond accountability, the streamlined subpoena power could help with future legislation.
“We can better equip ourselves with knowledge of what went wrong,” he said. “After the Marshall fire a lot of people felt like they didn’t have sufficient insurance. Why was that community so unprepared? We will be better informed on legislation that we make.”
The Marshall fire, which erupted in December 2021, left more than 1,000 homes destroyed. The investigation into the fire is ongoing.
Other state legislatures, such as those in California, Florida, Illinois and Nebraska, also have subpoena power, with many allowing individual committees to compel testimony, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Following the 2022 school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, which left 21 people dead, Texas’ state legislature granted subpoena power to a three-member investigative committee to review the attack.
Rep. Rod Bockenfeld, R-Watkins, said he’s interested in Colorado’s legislature using subpoena power but that he would like the bill to include protections to ensure the tool isn’t abused.
“There have to be some parameters on this committee and when you can use that power and justify using that power so you’re not preventing people from wanting to come in and give their opinion,” he said.
The bill doesn’t have any lead sponsors in the Senate yet. It was assigned to the Legislative Council Committee, but hasn’t been scheduled for its first hearing.