SALT LAKE CITY — A Thursday rally at the Utah Capitol was the kickoff for a referendum drive aimed at gathering the 95,000 signatures needed to call a referendum election with the hope of repealing HB477.
The Legislature fast-tracked HB477 in the last days of the legislative session, pushing through wide-ranging changes to the Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA) just two days after they were unveiled.
In an interview after the rally, House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said she thinks the referendum and initiative process is great. "I'm a process person, and it's part of how the process works."
Lockhart would not directly answer two key questions about the bill — specifically, who was behind the bill, and whether she regrets how HB477 was handled — saying only that the bill "has given us the opportunity, the great opportunity to have this discussion, to engage the public." She was referring to a working committee that will review the bill, presumably before a special legislative session that could result in amendments before HB477 becomes law on July 1.
Lockhart said she, Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, and Gov. Gary Herbert's office were choosing the committee's membership.
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Herbert said Thursday he believes HB477 will be repealed, though his definition of "repeal" seems to fall short of what opponents want.
"I think that process is starting now in another venue," he said. "Like most people, not only was I uncomfortable with the process, I'm uncomfortable with the product."
The governor said he wants discussions about further changes to GRAMA to begin "sooner rather than later," and that he still intends to call a special session in June, though it could happen earlier if consensus is reached.
"I think the longer this sits, the worse it becomes," Herbert said. "If we could do that in the next 30 days, that would be perfectly OK with me."
Both Herbert and Lockhart said they are sure the bill will look different soon. "I would say there is zero chance that 477 as it exists today will be law in July," Lockhart said.
But opponents don't want to take any chances and are working to see the bill repealed through a referendum vote.
With liberal former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson sharing a podium with Utah tea party organizer David Kirkham, rally organizers took turns sharing their views on how the bill would harm Utahns' ability to access the workings of state and local government.
Legislators made issue of the government costs of accommodating requests for information under GRAMA's rules. "But that's the cost of doing the public's business," Anderson said.
Participants who spoke at the rally or are listed as opposing the bill included the Utah League of Women Voters, Utah Foundation for Open Government, the American Civil Liberties Union, Utahns for Ethical Government, the Utah Democratic Party, Heal Utah, the Utah League of Independent Voters, Utah Moms for Clean Air, Common Cause and the tea party. The Society of Professional Journalists is also opposing the bill, though no media organizations spoke at the rally.
Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake, who voted against the bill, was the only Utah legislator attending Thursday's event. "Republican senators told me coming out of the bathroom this thing would blow over in a week. It's now been two weeks" since the legislative session ended. "These are dark days for the Legislature and democracy."
Common Cause President and CEO Bob Edgar was the notable non-Utahn at the rally, traveling to Salt Lake City from Washington, D.C., to voice his concern for the effects of HB477, which he believes are not isolated. "There is a major national effort to dissolve transparency laws," he said. "We were here in the ’90s to help the League of Women Voters get (GRAMA) in place. We're back now to help save it."
Steve Maxfield, chairman of the SaveGRAMA Citizens Coalition, compared the bill's language that would allow legislators to keep private the text messages they send and receive on state-owned cell phones to "sexting" among teenagers. "Now we have 'lexting.' Lexting is the prostitution of our state government to lobbyists," he said.
The referendum application was filed hours before Herbert signed another bill, SB165, which bans electronic petition signatures. It remains unclear whether that would allow the use of e-signatures in the referendum drive. SB165 took effect immediately since it passed both houses with a two-thirds majority.
On Wednesday, the national Society of Professional Journalists gave Utah its first-ever "Black Hole Award" to highlight the new records law, which it said makes Utah the most secretive state in the nation.
Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman, called for its repeal on Wednesday, saying HB477 is the wrong approach to balancing access and privacy. Earlier in the week, Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, apologized for his "yes" vote.