Gov. Gary Herbert set to call special session Friday to consider repeal of HB477

Published: Monday, March 21 2011 9:00 a.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert will call the Legislature into a special session Friday to consider repealing HB477, the controversial bill restricting access to many government records.

Citing "a loss of public confidence," Herbert called Monday for the bill's repeal. Hours later, after a closed caucus meeting, House Republicans said they plan to repeal the bill as soon as the governor calls a special session.

Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, said Friday is too soon for a special session. He said he would have preferred to meet during a regular interim day in April or May, saying the cost of convening for just one day is $30,000.

"(The governor) talks about process. This is not process," Waddoups said. "There's no reason to rush this like that."

Legislators passed the wide-ranging changes to the state's Government Records Access and Management Act at the tail end of this year's regular session after just two days of public deliberation. HB477 largely exempts the Legislature and several forms of electronic communication from GRAMA, allows for increased fees for records requests and erases language favoring openness.

In a statement, Herbert said he considered a veto of HB477 for its "symbolic value," but decided against it because the bill had passed with "veto-proof margins."

"During the recent legislative session, the public hearing process for HB477 did not meet the standard of openness and public dialog such legislation warranted," Herbert said. "It is now clear to me that HB477, both in process and substance, has resulted in a loss of public confidence."

After public outcry, lawmakers changed the bill to delay its effective date until July 1.  But protests have continued, along with a petition drive to send HB477 to a voter referendum.

In a recent Deseret News/KSL-TV poll, 84 percent of respondents said the GRAMA bill was important to them. Eighty-three percent favored disclosure of elected officials' text messages on public business, which would be protected under HB477.

And 61 percent were opposed to raising fees for records requests. HB477 would allow officials to charge overhead and administrative cost — and possibly costly attorney's fees — for especially broad requests. The survey of 432 Utahns by Dan Jones & Associates was taken March 15-17 and has a 4.75 percent margin of error.

House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said House members heard the criticism and decided to "take a step back." Several had already backed off their support for HB477 or openly called for its repeal.

"There was a concern expressed that we wanted to give the public an opportunity to be more involved in the process," she said. "We understand their frustration, and we continue to listen to their concerns."

House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Ogden, said media coverage of HB477 has been "extremely biased" and contributed to misunderstandings about what the bill does. He added that while there will be further discussion, House Republicans are still determined to make changes to modernize GRAMA.

"We will not accept doing nothing on GRAMA," Dee said.

Herbert said Monday a replacement for HB477 should align with three principles: the public's right to know, individual privacy and protecting taxpayers from the cost of "fishing expeditions."

Legislators have said they passed the bill to prevent correspondence with constituents from becoming public, although there were already provisions in the current GRAMA law to protect private information.

Also Monday, a 25-person working group tasked with recommending changes to GRAMA was announced. It will first meet Wednesday morning.

The group includes three Republicans and one Democrat from both the House and Senate; officials from the governor's office, attorney general's office and the Utah League of Cities and Towns; five members of the "traditional media"; three representatives of "new media"; and six members of the public, including former Utah Supreme Court Justice Michael Wilkins.

Lane Beattie, president of the Salt Lake Chamber and a former Senate president, will chair the panel. Former Deseret News reporter Geoff Liesik, now editor of the Uintah Basin Standard and the Vernal Express, has been invited to participate, along with Deseret News editorial writer Paul Edwards and LaVarr Webb, former managing editor of the Deseret News.

Waddoups said that group should have more time to work before a special session is called. He favors holding off on repealing HB477 until a replacement bill is ready.

Meanwhile, the ACLU of Utah said that unless it receives assurances of a quick repeal, it would file a lawsuit later this week over the ban — under a bill, SB165, passed this year — on electronic signatures in a referendum drive like the one underway on HB477.

The House and Senate first passed HB477 with two-thirds majorities. The Senate then passed the amended version postponing the effective date 23-6, and the House followed suit by a 42-29 vote, with four members not voting. That House vote fell short of the number that would be needed to override a veto, but Herbert said he had given legislators his word he would sign the amended bill if they changed the effective date, giving more time for discussion.

E-mail: pkoepp@desnews.com

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