SALT LAKE CITY — As a working group prepared to meet for the first time to discuss changes to Utah's open-records law, attention turned Tuesday to whether the Senate would repeal the controversial HB477.
Several senators contacted by the Deseret News expressed frustration with Gov. Gary Herbert's plan to call them back for a special session Friday to reconsider the bill, which makes wide-ranging changes to the Government Records Access and Management Act.
A repeal would require 15 votes in the Senate. As of Tuesday evening, 12 senators said they would vote for repeal, three said they would not and six were undecided. Another four will be absent — including former Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, who has retired — and four did not return phone calls.
Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, said it is "very possible" that the Senate will take no action Friday. A special session can last up to 30 days, meaning legislators could hold off until a regularly scheduled interim day.
House Republicans on Monday signaled their intent to repeal HB477 Friday.
However, Waddoups said the working group — made up of public officials, both traditional and new media and members of the public — should have a chance to draft an alternative before HB477 is scrapped.
"The Senate's position, of those that I've talked to, is repeal and replace," he said. "We can't replace it until the work's been done."
Waddoups said he expects the working group to meet once a week for four or five weeks. Given that, he questioned why a special session, which he said will cost $30,000, was needed so soon — especially after criticism that HB477 was rushed.
"It looks like we're repeating the same problem again," he said. "We're rushing and not letting the system work."
Waddoups, Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, and Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, said they would not vote to repeal the bill on Friday.
The Legislature already delayed the bill's effective date to July 1, but public protests have continued. HB477 would largely exempt the Legislature and several forms of electronic communication from GRAMA, allow increased fees for records requests and erase language favoring openness.
Not surprisingly, all seven Senate Democrats said they favor repeal, including Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, a sponsor of the original GRAMA legislation in the early 1990s and the only minority party senator to support HB477. In a statement, they said they would be happy to sponsor a repeal bill.
Five Senate Republicans also said they would vote to repeal: Curt Bramble, R-Provo; John Valentine, R-Orem; Steve Urquhart, R-St. George; Peter Knudson, R-Brigham City; and Dan Liljenquist, R-Bountiful.
"We ought to start back at ground zero," Valentine said. "We can't get an open and fair discussion in the present environment."
In a blog post Tuesday, Urquhart apologized for voting for HB477, saying it was the first vote he has regretted in more than 10 years in the Legislature. "I screwed up. I'm sorry," he wrote. "At the end of the day, the public might or might not have agreed with some of the conclusions we reached; but, having never had the opportunity to participate, the public rightly is incensed and wants the whole thing thrown out. … The right thing to do now is to start over."
And in an interview, Knudson said the Senate's "mistake came when we heedlessly pushed the bill through at breakneck speed."
But Urquhart was not happy about having to make the decision on repeal so quickly.
"This is bizarre that we have a special session called with four days' notice for a bill that won't go into effect for three months," he said. "It must be good PR, it must be good press, but it's bad governance."
The working group will meet for the first time this morning. Notably absent from the group is a direct representative of the Salt Lake Tribune, the state's largest newspaper.
"It would be nice to have someone from the Tribune on the board," said Nancy Conway, the Tribune's editor, adding she felt there should be representation for broadcast media and nonprofit groups. "It's not the ideal composition. … I suspect it was a slap at the Trib."
Asked if she felt the paper was snubbed in part for its anti-HB477 editorials, which labeled Herbert a "hack" for his decision not to veto the bill, Conway said, "I suppose so."
"We're accustomed to carrying pretty aggressive coverage of all things governmental," she said. "I understand there's contention sometimes. That kind of goes with the territory."
Conway said she is "very comfortable" being represented by media attorney Jeff Hunt, who will sit on the panel for the Utah Media Coalition.
The group will make recommendations to a legislative interim committee, which will draft new GRAMA legislation in time for another special session, likely in June.
Contributing: Amy Joi O'Donoghue, Spencer Garn and Collin McLachlan