Utah law allows lawmakers to work on important legislation without disclosing to the public exactly what they are working on until a bill is formally introduced for consideration. A proposal now on Capitol Hill would change that, and by so doing would bring a refreshing breeze of openness to the legislative process.
Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, has introduced House Bill 78, which would amend the state records laws to do away with an exemption that allows lawmakers to create files for specific bills without disclosing what those bills would do or who is behind them.
Instead, Powell's bill would require such draft legislation to include details such as the date of its filing, the sponsoring lawmaker and a short description of what the bill would do. Such information is exempt from public disclosure under a section of the records laws that also exempts things such as security arrangements at the state prison and corporate trade secrets.
The exemption is advantageous only to lawmakers and special interests that may want to keep legislation of a politically sensitive nature under wraps until the last minute. It certainly has been used for that purpose.
Two years ago, the controversial and ill-fated effort to emasculate the Utah Government Records and Management Act was sneaked into the session in the waning days without warning, even though it had been worked on extensively outside of public view. The bill led to huge public protests. Powell's measure would eliminate the section of the law that provided that cloak of secrecy.
His measure is joined this session by a handful of other proposals that would also strengthen records laws, offering evidence of a welcome and encouraging change of direction when it comes to the general legislative attitude toward open government.
The section of the law that grants legislators the ability to keep nascent legislation secret has only one discernible purpose — to allow for a degree of maneuverability around politically sensitive legislation. Unfortunately, that's exactly the kind of legislation that demands openness and transparency. The public can't offer input on mystery bills, and by the time some of these measures make it into the public light, there is limited time left to debate or stop bills that appear politically greased for quick passage.
As HB78 proceeds through the session, lawmakers who espouse the importance of keeping their process open to the public should rally for its final passage.