SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah lawmaker wants to bar reporters from the floor of the House of Representatives 45 minutes before they are scheduled to debate and vote at the Utah Capitol.
The proposed buffer time is tucked into a legislative resolution, HR4, alongside other potential changes to House procedures.
Sponsor Rep. Jim Dunnigan says the move would limit distraction for lawmakers when they are trying to gear up for the day and review last-minute materials before they vote.
"It seems reasonable," the Taylorsville Republican said.
Critics, including the Utah chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, say the proposal would unfairly cut reporters' access to elected leaders.
Journalists have long had permission to enter the chamber before the House speaker strikes the gavel to begin morning and afternoon sessions. They generally watch proceedings from upstairs galleries but also sometimes seek comment from representatives on the floor or in the chamber halls.
Dunnigan said more than one representative has told him they have been distracted by reporters in the chamber.
Asked if the disturbances came from journalists interviewing their colleagues nearby or from reporters asking them directly for comment, Dunnigan said, "I'd say it's probably both."
"When you’re getting ready to start the session for the morning or the afternoon, typically a legislator is on the floor preparing, going through a mass of material that’s been distributed," Dunnigan said. "We’re given numerous bits of information, materials, handouts, budget summaries, updates. And those are all at our chamber desk. Our chamber desk is certainly a mini-office during the session."
Dunnigan declined to say which of his colleagues requested the change.
"It’s not at all an attempt to restrict access," he said, noting reporters still would be allowed to speak with lawmakers as soon as the sessions adjourn.14 comments on this story
Board members of the Utah Headliners Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in a statement said the measure "would essentially create 45 minutes of darkness for legislators to huddle on the House floor prior to voting on the state's most pressing subjects."
"Restricting journalists' access in this way has a broader effect of cutting the public out of the democratic process, flying in the face of transparency and accountability," the group added.
The proposal pertains only to the House chamber, not the Utah Senate, and stipulates no penalty for reporters who break the rule.
No hearing has been scheduled.