SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert said Wednesday he signed the amended version of HB477 — a bill restricting access to many government records — to allow time to discuss further changes, even though he considered the original a "bad law."
The House and Senate voted Monday to delay the bill's effective date until July 1. The first version, passed quickly last week, would have gone into effect immediately with the governor's signature.
On Tuesday, protesters at the Utah Capitol said they were not satisfied with the delay and wanted Herbert to veto HB477, which makes sweeping changes to the Government Records Access and Management Act.
But the governor says his action has created time for an open dialogue that he believes will produce a better bill.
"The easy thing for me would've been to veto it and wash my hands of it," Herbert told KSL Newsradio's Doug Wright. "I'm concerned that we get the right outcome and have a process where everyone can come to the table."
He said he reached an understanding with legislative leaders that he would sign the bill after they recalled and amended it. To veto the original HB477 and possibly be overridden by the Legislature — both houses passed it with a veto-proof two-thirds majority — would have risked ending up with a "bad law," Herbert said.
He later added, "For those who play poker, you can bluff. ... Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose."
Herbert said he first heard about the bill just before leaving for Washington, D.C., the weekend before it was introduced and had "concerns from the beginning."
Responding to reports that House Republicans felt betrayed by being asked to recall the bill immediately after taking such a controversial vote, the governor said "nobody's under the bus." But he conceded that the public outcry has been "probably more robust than I thought it would be."
Legislators have promised to set up a working group, including the press and members of the public, to study GRAMA after the legislative session ends this week. That group would make recommendations to interim study committees, which would draft a new bill in time for a special session in June.
Can all the interested parties come to an agreement?
"We're going to put that theory to the test," Herbert said.
He said the legislative process could lose credibility if the public does not feel it has a chance for input.
"That didn't happen," Herbert said. "The good news for everybody is that it's going to happen now and it's going to happen in spades."
Critics are unhappy that the current provisions of the bill would be the starting point for those discussions. In its present form, HB477 largely exempts the Legislature and several forms of electronic communication from GRAMA, increases fees for records requests and removes language favoring openness.
Herbert said he expects the bill to look different by the time it goes into effect July 1. Asked why he signed it instead of letting it become law 20 days after the session, as it would have without any action from him, he said, "It deserves some certainty so we can start working on a solution."
Legislators have said the bill is needed to modernize GRAMA, since many private or informal discussions now take place through text and instant messages. They have also said they wanted to protect correspondence from their constituents, even though personal information can already be redacted under the current law.
Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, expressed regret Wednesday about the fast-tracked process used to pass the bill.
"I apologize if it went fast, and as a result we're making amendments. We're making sure the public will have a chance (for input)," he said.
Explaining why the bill had to be rushed, Waddoups said, "Some bills are really difficult to get support for even though they're good policy." He said previous attempts to change GRAMA had failed as opponents targeted legislators one by one.
House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said last week she would not apologize for the way the bill passed.
According to Waddoups, the Senate didn't know exactly what House members had in mind until HB477 was unveiled.
"Even we were a little surprised by the quickness of it, but we were supportive because the case was made that it was needed," he said. Still, some provisions may go too far, Waddoups said, such as the exemption of all text messages from GRAMA.
"I don't think that was necessarily the Legislature's intent," he said. "The intent was that government documents would be available but personal messages would be private."