HEBER CITY — The Republican lawmaker who represents House District 54 now says he voted for a controversial bill that amends the state's open records laws because he feared retaliation from leadership in the state House of Representatives.
Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, used his weekly Keeping House column in the Uintah Basin Standard and a call to a Heber City radio program to express his personal shame for voting in favor HB477 — which he called an "abomination" — and to offer an explanation for his actions.
"In the last week of the session, leadership's power becomes supreme," Powell wrote. "This is because all bills still pending with one week remaining in the session are removed from consideration and selectively replaced on the House or Senate agenda simply at the pleasure of leadership.
"Legislators are completely at the mercy of leadership during this time and must do everything they can to stay in leaders' good graces," he added.
The column was sent on Sunday, four days after Powell called KTMP when the legislative session was in its final hours. The second-term lawmaker was asked almost immediately by the show's host, Paul Royall, to explain the speed with which lawmakers passed HB477.
"I think it was too much one-party control in our state," Powell answered.
"That's the way the Legislature runs," he added, when asked to clarify. "It's terrible. It's an atrocious law," he continued without prodding.
"It's the worst thing I've ever seen, not just in the time I've served, but in my lifetime in the Utah Legislature, but it's because of the way the party controls the Legislature."
"So you voted against it?" Powell was asked.
"No. I'm a Republican," he replied.
HB477, which Gov. Gary Herbert signed after lawmakers agreed to set its effective date back to July 1, amends the state's 20-year-old Government Records Access and Management Act in a number of ways. Most notably, it exempts state lawmakers from having to disclose their e-mail correspondence with each other or their staffs and eliminates statutory language that says government records are presumed to be public and that the burden is on the government to show why records should not be released. It also specifies that voice mails, text messages, instant messages and video chats are not records, even if they are used by elected officials or state employees to conduct government business.
In his column, Powell wrote that the bill was first sprung on House Republicans in a closed caucus, then put up for a vote less than 48 hours later with little understanding of the changes it made, but a clear message that leadership expected GOP lawmakers to vote for it.
"This is a leadership bill," Powell said on the radio Thursday, adding that if he had bucked House leaders, he risked having them shelve pending legislation that was important to his constituents in retaliation.
"So you're basically telling us you were blackmailed (to vote yes), otherwise none of your bills would be heard?" Royall asked.
"Uh, yes," Powell replied.
House Speaker Becky Lockhart on Monday strongly disputed Powell's claim that lawmakers voted according to a real or implied edict from Republican leadership.
"I will categorically deny that he would have faced any kind of retaliation," Lockhart said. "We allow all the members of the House to vote their conscience on all the issues."
When asked to explain the unanimous vote by the members of her party when the first incarnation of HB477 came to the House floor, Lockhart said an answer could only be obtained by speaking with each lawmaker.
She noted that when the House voted on the amended version of HB477 days later, several Republicans voted against the measure.
"They voted for it first and then the second time, they didn't," the speaker said. "You'd have to talk to them specifically about what their reasons were that they changed their votes. There was no pressure brought to bear by me on any member on this issue."
Lockhart, who was in her office Monday working to identify candidates for the interim study committee that will work to address the concerns about HB477 over the next three months, admitted she is frustrated that outcry over the bill has overshadowed all the good work lawmakers did this session. She also said she would willingly meet with Powell to talk about his concerns.
"It's unfortunate that he felt that that process didn't live up to his expectations," Lockhart said. "If he'd like to express his concerns to me about how he felt about the process, I'm more than happy to listen to those concerns."