SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Legislature on Monday recalled and amended a controversial bill that would restrict access to government documents, pushing back its effective date after public protests that it would gut the state's open records act.
Gov. Gary Herbert met with legislative leaders earlier in the day to threaten to veto HB477 if lawmakers didn't recall it. He also met with the House GOP caucus and Republican Senate leadership in the afternoon to discuss his concerns.
After recalling the bill, the Senate voted 23-6 to change the effective date to July 1, 2011. The House concurred with the amendment 42-29. No other changes were considered to the bill.
HB477 would largely exempt the legislative branch from the Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA) as well as several forms of communication, including voice mail and text messaging. It would also raise fees for some requests and give state agencies more time to respond to requests.
Many lawmakers said it was needed to protect private correspondence with their constituents. The bill was introduced and passed in just over two days.
The governor is expected to call a special session before July 1 to implement any changes. House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said a working group would consider rolling back proposed fee increases for records requests, among other changes.
"We're listening to the constituents, and they're saying, 'We'd like to talk about this a little more.' We're responding to that," Lockhart said, as well as the issues raised by the governor.
She declined, however, to say the bill was approved too hastily. "I'm not going to apologize for the House process," the speaker said.
Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, also defended the process saying it will now get another 90 days of consideration. “We need a little more time,” he said.
In a statement, Herbert said: "I am pleased the Legislature recalled the bill and I’m encouraged they are committed to amending the bill in order to provide for a more thorough and deliberative process. Good public policy demands good public participation. I reiterate my commitment to the principles of open and transparent government."
Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, who voted against HB477 last week, suggested forming a working group made up of lawmakers, governor's staff, media and the public to study the issue.
Waddoups said some of the language regarding electronic communications that discuss public policy issues might need to be changed to keep them accessible to the public. Waddoups also said changing the effective date would allow the public and media to have input in the coming months, giving lawmakers the opportunity to look at "where we may have gone too far."
In two committee hearings, public testimony was overwhelmingly against the measure. But it still passed with more than two-thirds of both the House and Senate and was set to take effect upon Herbert's signature.
"There should have been more time," said Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo. "We should have been more deliberative."
The governor's spokeswoman said Monday he was in no hurry to make a decision on the bill and had raised concerns about how quickly it went through the Legislature.
"That's one of the issues," Ally Isom said.
Isom said the governor's office has also received hundreds of calls and e-mails about HB477 since it was passed Friday afternoon — including more than 850 between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. Monday. Most of the calls were to ask Herbert to veto the bill, she said.
"He's looking at all sides. He realizes it's emotional on all sides of this issue and there are strong feelings," Isom aid. "He has some concerns about not just the process, but to ensure that we get the end result that was initially sought by GRAMA."
Lawmakers said they hoped that the proposed study sessions would prevent a flood of GRAMA requests. Since the bill surfaced, the governor's office and the Legislature have received some 22 new requests, Lockhart said, in addition to 10 requests made since before the session started in late January. She also cited an "acceleration" of requests over the last six months.
The bill has been fiercely opposed by media outlets and many public advocacy groups, and not all were satisfied with its recall.
"It's a political ploy to get the media and the public to move on. … We, the public, will not move on," said Linda Petersen, president of the Utah Foundation for Open Government. "I don't think (legislators) really thought we would galvanize the citizens. I think they thought the citizens didn't care."
Joel Campbell, a lobbyist for the Utah Media Coalition, said that while the recall was "certainly not as much as I hoped for," he appreciated the efforts of the governor and Legislature to give the public a chance for input.
The fast-tracking of the bill united opponents on both ends of the political spectrum.
"I hated the process," said Gayle Ruzicka, president of the conservative Utah Eagle Forum. Even though she likes much of the bill, she said the "outrageous fee" increases will prevent the public from accessing information.
And Rocky Anderson, the liberal former mayor of Salt Lake City, said it was "an outrage and insult to the people of this state" based on an "arrogant political calculation" that the public would not care.
Meanwhile, Sen. Gene Davis, a House sponsor of the legislation that created GRAMA in the early 1990s and the only Senate Democrat to vote for HB477, reiterated his support for the bill.
"There's still an awful lot of information everyone can get their hands on … I really believe we did the right thing," he said. "The most important thing is we will have discussions during interim."
Former House Speaker Marty Stephens, a primary architect of the original GRAMA, said a task force of all interested parties is the best way to modernize the law.
"It's not just a legislative problem, and it's not … just a media problem," he said. "If you could get the groups to commit, both the Legislature and media to have an honest dialogue together, I believe you could come to a good solution to this."
Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche, Dennis Romboy
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