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Public gives Legislature mediocre grade after late dustup over GRAMA

Published: Sunday, March 20 2011 7:02 a.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — The Legislature passed a budget with no tax increases and less painful cuts than first expected. An immigration package passed with solid majorities and public support.

And then GRAMA happened.

Some observers say that when legislators quickly pushed through wide-ranging changes to the Government Records Access and Management Act in the waning days of the session, they made what could have been a smooth landing a lot more bumpy.

Kirk Jowers, director of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, compared it to the end of last year's session, when lawmakers gave then-House Majority Leader Kevin Garn a standing ovation as he resigned over the revelation he once shared a hot tub with a 15-year-old girl.

"The Legislature has become very adept at blowing its own foot off in the last couple days," Jowers said. "Those two events closed out what would otherwise have been more positive sessions."

It all adds up to a mediocre "C" grade for the Legislature, according to 432 Utahns polled by Dan Jones & Associates, even though they were happy with each element of the immigration package: a guest worker program, stricter enforcement by police and requirements for businesses to verify the legal status of employees.

And 56 percent said they favor the Utah Compact, which set the framework for a civil dialogue and declared immigration a state issue. The poll has a margin of error of 4.75 percent.

But the respondents seemed preoccupied with GRAMA, with 84 percent saying it was somewhat or very important to them personally. Eighty-three percent said they should have access to elected officials' text messages, which would be protected under the controversial HB477, now set to take effect July 1.

In addition, almost 90 percent said the process used to craft the changes to GRAMA was probably or definitely inappropriate.

"That is unusual," said U. political science professor Matthew Burbank. "You very rarely see any issue that so many people say is important to them."

Noting that opposition to HB477 cut across party lines, he said, "It feeds the perception that many citizens have of the Legislature anyway, that they're interested in their own political careers as opposed to the good of everybody."

The poll's respondents gave essentially the same "C" grade to Gov. Gary Herbert, Senate President Michael Waddoups, House Speaker Becky Lockhart, the Senate, the House and the two parties — apparently signaling that the public does not distinguish greatly between different actors in the state's political process.

But it is Herbert and Republican legislators who are taking the most heat now from the conservative wing of their own party, as delegates in several counties condemn them for the immigration bills.

According to Jowers, that's more evidence of a gulf between activist delegates — who control party conventions and therefore many politicians' fates — and the general public.

"Again and again, we see vast majorities of Utahns are conservative, compassionate, pragmatic people who want reasonable solutions," he said. "But when politicians give the people what they want, the delegates try to make them pay for it."

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

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