(Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie)
(Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie)

A bill to reduce the cost of making copies of government documents under the Freedom of Information Act survived a close vote in the Planning and Development Committee Friday despite concerns about its fiscal impact on towns. 

The bill caps the fees government entities can charge for copying most public documents at 15 cents a page and prohibits them from charging someone to copy records using a cell phone or camera. The proposal notably excludes land records from the new caps, which government agencies will still be allowed to charge for access up to $20 per day. 

Under current law, per-page copying fees vary by agency, but generally fall between 25 cents and 50 cents per page.

The Government Administration and Elections Committee approved the bill on a unanimous vote in March, but it was referred this week to the Planning and Development Committee which passed it, but not before several lawmakers objected to the reduction in municipal revenues it was likely to cause. 

“I can’t express enough how much this costs,” Sen. Dan Champagne, a Republican who is also mayor of Vernon, said. “The loss to the municipalities – this is paying for the employees, some of this is offsetting some of the costs of the employees.”

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Champagne and others on the committee complained that the bill’s fiscal analysis did not do enough to capture the municipal impact of the bill. Sen. Steve Cassano, the committee’s Democratic co-chairman who is a former mayor of Manchester, guessed the legislation could result in up to $30,000 in revenue loss for larger municipalities.

“If it’s a substantial fiscal impact, then we need to have an alternative to make up for that revenue. It’s part of the change in technology, understood, but the fiscal impact has to be understood,” Cassano said.

During a public hearing last month, Mike Savino, president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information, submitted written testimony supporting the change. Savino said access to public records should be considered one of the functions of government deemed to be an expense shared by society.

“There is no cash box at the entrance of a public high school, no bill is prepared after firefighters extinguish a house fire, no charge to call 911 or use a library card,” Savino wrote. “Government transparency and accountability are likewise at the heart of our democracy. And there cannot be government accountability without barrier-free access to the records of government.”

Savino said the bill’s reduced rate of 15-cents per-page still exceeded the price of making copies at most for-profit printing shops.

During Friday’s meeting, Rep. David Michel, D-Stamford, said reducing or eliminating fees for copying records coincided with the spirit of the state’s Freedom of Information law.

“There shouldn’t be, I think, any form of really profit, actually being generated on these sorts of requests for the sake of transparency,” he said.

Rep. Michael Winkler, D-Vernon, said the bill represented a compromise between proponents and town officials who worried about the fiscal impact. 

“Town clerks, who hold most of the records that are requested under FOI, can still charge people $20 for looking at the land records, which is where they make much of their money and people could take pictures of a set of minutes for free,” Winkler said.

Champagne said the concern for most towns stemmed from companies and individuals who requested an excessive number of documents, which require staff members to take time and collect.

“If we want to lay this burden on municipalities, then the state should cough up some money to help with that,” he said. “This is a stretch and it goes too far because there are way too many people who abuse the FOI laws.”