Demographic Data Helps Colorado Lawmakers Assess Potential Disparate Impact of Proposals

Legislative analyses examine whether budget and policy changes could affect various populations differently

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Demographic Data Helps Colorado Lawmakers Assess Potential Disparate Impact of Proposals
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To help lawmakers better understand how their proposals could create disparate outcomes for different populations, Colorado’s General Assembly established a formal, nonpartisan process in 2019 to analyze the potential impact of legislation in what are called demographic notes.

States have increased their use of evidence to inform decision-making since the Great Recession of 2009. More recently, many policymakers have focused on long-standing disparities that may have been aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic or highlighted by the country’s racial reckoning in 2020.

Leaders want to better understand how proposed laws could affect their constituents. Colorado’s approach emphasizing demographic notes helps legislators better understand the potential impact of their actions and could serve as a model for other states looking to incorporate demographic data into the lawmaking process.

What are demographic notes and racial impact analyses?

Many states use fiscal impact statements to identify potential costs or savings for taxpayers before adoption of a bill. Some have developed additional tools, such as health impact assessments and racial impact analyses, to examine the potential broader societal impact of various proposals. These tools can help predict how a particular measure might harm or help racial and ethnic groups or worsen racial disparities.

A 2021 report from The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit focused on criminal justice policy, found that 10 states have mechanisms—such as laws or commission policies—for the preparation and consideration of racial impact statements while nine are considering implementing similar procedures. Meanwhile, The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Health Impact Project has documented that 45 states use some form of health impact assessments to engage communities and identify the potential disproportionate health effects that policy decisions can have on different communities.

State policies can have unintended consequences for different groups, and the racial impact statements are intended to highlight and address them before implementation.

Today, these statements are most widely used in discussions of criminal justice and safety legislation. For example, bills enacted in recent years in Iowa and New Jersey allow policymakers to assess the racial impact of proposed sentencing and parole changes. A 2015 AP report examining the impact of these policies in Iowa showed that bills rated as having no effect on disparities or deemed likely to decrease them were almost two times as likely to pass. Still, some bills rated as likely to increase disparities were approved.

Colorado does not have a separate mechanism for racial impact statements, but it is one of the few states that uses demographic notes to expand its analysis of the impact of policies on different population groups to policy areas beyond safety and justice issues.

How do Colorado’s demographic notes work?

The General Assembly created the system for demographic notes in 2019 through H.B. 19-1184. The law defines a note as “a [mechanism] that uses available data to outline the potential effects of a legislative measure on disparities within the state.” It authorizes Legislative Council Staff, a nonpartisan research office, to prepare analyses for up to 20 bills annually. Notes can look at potential disparities in terms of race, ethnicity, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, geography, and socioeconomic status.

Leaders from both parties in both chambers can each recommend that demographic notes be prepared for five legislative bills each year. After the initial request, the lawmakers meet with council staff to determine if an analysis is feasible. The law requires state agencies to fulfill any data requests from the Legislative Council Staff and appropriates funding for one analyst position within the office with the goal to publish a demographic note within 14 days of the request. Members of the public can comment on notes as they are being prepared.

How have Colorado legislators used demographic notes so far?

Over the past two years, legislators from both parties have requested demographic notes on five proposals focused on topics in education, health, transportation, taxation, and crime. Three of the five bills were eventually signed into law. For example, Republican Senate leaders requested a demographic note for H.B. 21-1232, an act sponsored by Democrats that would require health insurance carriers to offer a standardized health benefit plan for Colorado residents at reduced premium rates.

The note found that “economic and health outcomes will improve for several populations in the state, including but not limited to lower income, uninsured, and rural populations.” The note also highlighted that people who are Hispanic or non-White are “are more likely to be impacted … through reduced health insurance premiums.”

Staff made these determinations after analyzing provisions in the bill that would likely affect residents, and the note highlighted current disparities across different Colorado populations. To draw these conclusions, analysts examined state data from several agency and nongovernmental sources.

The note then helped bill sponsors secure additional support for the measure from fellow legislators. “Getting the demographic note was important for us to have the information needed to show our colleagues that it would positively impact Brown and Black communities,” said Representative Iman Jodeh (D), one of the sponsors.

Having the data also allowed legislators to conduct further outreach to communities across the state and explain how the technical bill could affect their constituents.

Another demographic note looked at a Republican proposal. As drafted, S.B. 21-037 would require school districts and charter schools that are closed to in-person instruction to operate student equity education funding programs to provide money to parents for educational services and supplies.

The note found that the proposed bill would have improved economic outcomes for parents and “may have reduced economic and education disparities by race/ethnicity and geography.” Ultimately, lawmakers postponed action on the measure. Still, these requests demonstrate a bipartisan interest in using data to understand how proposed legislation may increase or decrease disparities among Colorado residents.

This process is not without difficulties. Legislative Council analysts can face challenges in retaining the office’s nonpartisan status if the reports are seen by as partisan.  

The process also requires quick work if the notes are to be useful to legislators seeking to move proposals through their committees promptly. This need for the work to match the rapid cycle of political decisions can conflict with the need for time to conduct rigorous data analyses. The law attempted to address this by adding a staff member within the office. Legislative Council Staff also can update notes as new data becomes available.

Another obstacle can be a lack of available data. State agencies do not always collect demographic data on their programs, which can make it difficult for Legislative Council Staff to provide thorough analyses.

As state leaders across the country continue to invest in their capacity to use research to make budget and policy choices, they should consider ways to better incorporate demographic data into these processes. By understanding how proposed changes can increase or decrease disparities, policymakers can make better informed decisions that support all of their residents.

Alex Sileo works on state partnerships for The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Results First initiative.

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