Utah lawmakers repeal controversial open records law

Published: Friday, March 25 2011 12:00 p.m. MDT

Sen. Curtis S. Bramble speaks during debate over HB477. Utah legislators meet Friday, March 25, 2011, in special session at the state Capitol about HB477.

Scott G. Winterton, Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah lawmakers repealed a widely criticized law restricting access to many government records Friday, though not without a tussle between the House and Senate.

The vote, however, doesn't mean changes to the Government Records Access and Management Act or GRAMA aren't coming. Lawmakers intend to draft new legislation in the next few months — this time with public input that Utahns found sorely lacking when the Legislature hurriedly passed HB477 earlier this month.

"Obviously, this one isn't done," said Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville.

The bill largely exempted the Legislature and several forms of electronic communication from GRAMA, allowed for increased fees for records requests and erased language favoring openness.

Lawmakers say they have listened to the voice of the people and want to start with a clean slate.

"It is my opinion that we simply messed up. It was no one's fault but ours," said Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George.

Gov. Gary Herbert called the Legislature into special session to reconsider the bill after  a huge public outcry galvanized the community, bringing together liberals and tea party activists in an effort repeal the law by referrendum.

In a statement afterward, the governor said he was pleased legislators responded to the people's will.

"It was the right thing to do as a first step to restore public confidence. As the Legislature’s working group re-examines Utah’s GRAMA statutes, I am confident all members will work diligently to craft recommendations which protect the public’s right to know, protect an individual’s legitimate right to privacy, and protect taxpayer dollars," he said.

A 25-member working group organized by GOP House and Senate leadership to consider changes to the open records law met for the first time Wednesday. No formal action was taken as participants — lawmakers, media representatives and other members of the public — voiced their views about GRAMA. The group intends to meet weekly.

Except for brief comments by House Majority Leader Brad Dee and House Minority Leader David Litvak, the House made quick work of HB1001, voting 60-3 to approve the bill that repeals HB477. Reps. Neal Hendrickson, D-West Valley; Mike Noel, R-Kanab, and Curt Webb, R-Logan, voted against the repeal.

Neither lawmakers nor the working group could move forward in a "forthright manner with HB477 hanging on top of everyone's head," Litvack said.

The Senate, after some lengthy debate, voted 19-5 to repeal the law, including amendments to assure public input and asking Herbert to call them into special session by June 24 to consider a new bill. Sens. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem; Mark Madsen, R-Eagle Mountain, Stuart Reid, R-Ogden; Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley, and Waddoups cast the dissenting votes.

The House, however, rejected the amendments. The Senate ultimately removed those provisions but approved "intent language" calling for the same thing, except without the June deadline.

Senate Democrats were united in the repeal and restoring "sunlight" to government, said Sen. Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake. "We believe it is better to measure twice and cut once," he said.

Waddoups said in an interview afterward that he thinks lawmakers would be inclined to pass a revised GRAMA bill this summer rather than wait until the 2012 Legislature because "January is closer to the election."

House members said there's no need to rush.

"Given the nature of the topic, that date may be too soon. A later date may be more appropriate." said Rep. John Dougall, R-American Fork, sponsor of HB477 said.

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