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Senate passes bill blocking public access to many government records

Published: Saturday, March 5 2011 12:48 a.m. MST

Utah Senator Gene Davis speaks during the discussion to pass H.B. 477, Government Records Amendments in the Senate Chambers of the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City, Utah on Friday, March 4, 2011. Mike Terry, Deseret News

Mike Terry, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The Senate on Friday passed a fast-tracked bill by a 21-7 vote that would greatly restrict the public's access to government records.

By passing both chambers by two-thirds majorities, HB477 will become effective immediately with the governor's signature.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Gary Herbert said the governor will "take the time necessary to fully review the bill." He previously expressed "concerns" about how quickly the bill was considered after first being unveiled Wednesday.

Shortly before the full Senate passed HB477, which would make wide-ranging changes to the Government Records Access and Management Act, it advanced out of the Senate Rules Committee on a 5-2 vote following a failed attempt to send the bill to an interim committee for study.

While lawmakers said the changes were motivated by news media overwhelming staff with requests, Linda Petersen of the Utah Foundation for Open Government told the committee there's a way to deal with requests without "knifing GRAMA." And Jeff Hunt, an attorney representing the Utah Media Coalition, said the bill was "not in the public interest."

But Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Lehi, said the bill would merely inconvenience the media and called the anticipated impact of the bill "hyperbole."

On the Senate floor, HB477 sponsor Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, said he would request an interim study so the media and public can suggest further revisions to GRAMA. He said despite calls to hold off on passing the bill, he felt it was the "right thing" to act now.

"This GRAMA has been abused and needs to be curtailed in such a way that it still protects the public but defends ourselves," Hillyard said.

Six of the seven Senate Democrats voted against the bill. They were joined by Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, who said he was troubled by the speed with which the bill was passed.

"I don't like this kind of thing at the end of the session," Buttars said. "I've seen it before, and I hate it."

HB477 passed the House 61-12 on Thursday after a brief debate in which legislators accused the media of abusing GRAMA to try to "dig up dirt" on lawmakers.

The bill, first publicly aired in a House committee Wednesday, would exempt certain forms of electronic communication from being considered public records, increase fees and response times for requests and erase intent language favoring disclosure. The state's legislative branch would no longer be subject to much of GRAMA.

Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, said the Senate wanted to pass the measure before leaving Friday.

“It will complicate matters if it has a weekend to fester,” he said, adding that he did not want senators subjected to pressure from the bill’s opponents over the next two days.

“We really don’t need to have a committee hearing. But we think this is one of those that has a high enough priority,” the Senate leader said. “We think we understand it very well.”

He said the issue has been studied for some time and that the bill contains much of the same language as legislation that surfaced briefly after a task force examined GRAMA three years ago. At that time, Waddoups said, the House wasn’t willing to pass changes to GRAMA. And last year was an election year for all House members, as well as half the Senate.

“Nobody likes to do this in an election year,” Waddoups said. “So now is the time.”

He said the Senate first saw HB477 “two weeks ago at the most.”

Lawmakers say they want to protect constituents from having their correspondence with representatives made public.

"It's not fair to try to embarrass someone because they had a discussion with a family member that was not necessarily related to government business," Waddoups said.

He declined to give an example of when that had happened but said he could think of at least one.

They also said they want to relieve legislative staff who they claim have been inundated by records requests. Senate leaders said requests made during this legislative session alone have involved more than 20,000 pages of documents and 400 staff hours at an estimated cost of $80,000.

With the proposed changes, any member of the public could be forced to pay attorney fees of $200 an hour or more to have a request reviewed, Waddoups said.

Hillyard said legislators plan to meet with representatives of the Utah Press Association after the legislative session is over to discuss rolling back some of the changes to GRAMA.

According to Hunt, the bill would be the first in the country to his knowledge to exempt all text messages from records requests, regardless of their content. He said the proposed changes would take GRAMA from being one of the best open-records laws in the country to one of the worst.

"It sweeps away 20 years of case law and State Records Committee decisions," he said. "The bill is so extreme it really pushes the borderline of how much the government can restrict information."

The bill would require anyone requesting a government record to prove by a "preponderance of evidence" that it should be released. That would overturn the presumption of openness that currently favors disclosure.

Hunt said he and other opponents of the bill are reviewing whether it violates the First Amendment or provisions of the Utah Constitution establishing freedom of the press.

Open-government advocates also weighed in Friday against the bill. The Utah League of Women Voters called it "a frontal assault on the longstanding protections of GRAMA."

In a poll done Thursday for the Deseret News and KSL, over 90 percent of respondents said restricting government records would hurt the public's ability to monitor the legislative process, and 67 percent said there should be more discussion before changes are made.

Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche

E-mail: pkoepp@desnews.com Twitter: pbkdn

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